Book Review - Scott McClanahan writes with ecstatic energy in Hill William

The prolific short-story writer delivers an admirable first novel

Tuesday November 26, 2013 04:00 am EST

Let's say you wanted to compare contemporary American novelists to drugs. The paranoid, convoluted novels of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo might be like high-grade weed. The severely blank hipness of Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney would be cheap, cut coke. Cormac McCarthy's books would be some ancient stuff that no one has ever heard of. Jonathan Franzen and his ilk would be decaffeinated tea. Scott McClanahan's new novel, Hill William, is trucker speed.

Like those little, cross-topped ephedrine pills, McClanahan writes short, rhythmic sentences that get you moving fast, take you down some winding roads, and leave you raw and defenseless. Riding along with Hill William, McClanahan's first novel, can be a harrowing journey, but at the moment of come down, when the reader is most vulnerable from the experience of his prose, McClanahan chooses generosity, to give to his reader something kind.

The plot of Hill William isn't anything remarkable. It's a coming-of-age novel told from the perspective of a young boy living in a rural Appalachian community. He has some rough and confusing experiences — primarily sexual abuse at the hands of a neighbor named Derrick — that contribute to his emotional and mental instability as an adult. What could be a flatly dark story is made into something compulsively readable and unsettling by McClanahan's jacked-up words.

McClanahan is particularly adept at weaving a comic thread through a dark moment until you can't decide which part of the fabric is sad and which part is funny anymore. This is how the narrator, then 6, describes his mother at the edge of a mental breakdown:

"My mother stood at the door wearing her baby blue winter jacket.

She started crying, except she was still trying to smile and show me that nothing was wrong. She was smiling and crying at the same time like her face couldn't decide whether to cry or smile. I knew this was the story of the world.

I thought, 'This woman's crazy. I can't wait to tell my friends.'"

Hill William is exactly that: a crying book that wears a crooked smile through its darkest moments. In the background, we see the mountains being destroyed by strip-mining and the abject poverty of a life that exists solely between the dirt road and the convenience store. Yet, the book's setting might be more accurately described as existing inside of the narrator's speech. McClanahan's whole vision is shaped by the patois of on-the-sleeve and off-the-cuff Southern vernacular.

Of course, novels aren't typically categorized into classes of drugs. The narrator of Hill William doesn't even like drugs; he resists seeking out psychological help because he thinks prescribed pharmaceuticals will just get him high and numb to the experiences of the world. So, you might say that Hill William is a Southern book because McClanahan lives in West Virginia or you might lump the book in with that (unfortunately named) "Alt Lit" crowd because McClanahan has an independent publisher and isn't afraid of the Internet. But Hill William doesn't have much in common with the other books that get labeled Southern these days, nor with a clique of Tumblr users. Hill William belongs to that class of books whose words will alter your vision and change your mind. In other words, a drug.

Hill William by Scott McClanahan. Tyrant Books. 200 pp. $14.95.

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