Scott McClanahan, The Sarah Book, Tyrant Books, 2017
Reviewed by Caroll Sun Yang
Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all. 
—"Nadja", André Breton
Allow me to preface this review with necessary facts—
This is me popping my very first contemporary novel review cherry. I deliberately avoided any other analysis of this third treasure (after Hill William and Crapalachia) by Scott McClanahan, The Sarah Book, so I might remain naive, unbiased and untethered to convention- pardon me. I am an adult child of an alcoholic father, spent countless hours neglected in front of the tube and consequently grew up to be an attention deficient enabler. Hey look! A Squirrel! Drink, you monkey. Also, I think the author of The Sarah Book is impossibly adorable, in text and off- this will affect my review.
I so connected to the narrator Scott, he had me compulsively sitting in a Walmart parking lot late one night while eating wings (like the heartsick narrator Scott does) so I might summon or channel the desperate feels, I call it witchery but my son informed me that it's weirdo "method writing". Fair enough. I also drew pictures culled from images in this book because they are just too good. McClanahan is a master describer. There is a rad film adaptation waiting to happen. You'll see.
Okay. Let's do this.
The Sarah Book synopsis as told to a child—
A brother and sister had a mom and dad. The mom and dad love one another but the dad drank too much poison juice every day. The juice made him feel good and so alive. He barfed a lot. The poison he loved, made the mom tired. She got sad. She was a kind lady who worked hard as a dying people's nurse, she was always sharing her crazy beautiful stories with the dad. The dad didn't know that one day the mom would ask to break up with him forever because he did things like burn bibles, look at lots of naked ladies on the computer, and drive like a crazy person with the brother and sister in the back seat. Even though they had a lot of fun times, they were very close like a brother and sister, the good times were not enough. Deep down, the dad always wanted to die but he didn't know why. Something bad probably happened to him when he was little. He got tired. He got sad. He drank so much poison, it felt like medicine. But still, in his heart lived a tiny kind man who liked to write stories, tell jokes, learn, read a lot of books, save kittens, and eat beef jerky. After the mom tells the dad to go away, he wants to stop being alive, his heart felt sick. He tried to die in a hilarious way, but failed. The mom and dad loved their children so much, but had to pass them back and forth. Life went on, they became new families, new people. The dad became the mom and the son was the mom and the daughter was the dad and the mom was a sky, she was a river and even mountains and everything was everyone and everyone was all things. Someday this too shall pass. You will too. But probably we will all live again, somehow.
McClanahan's project is narrated by Scott (presumably McClanahan himself and it's no secret), a spirit that I related to the way one orphan does to another. Scott behaves badly, tirelessly revealing himself to be a somewhat loathsome character, but he does so artfully using a language so intimate and conveying scenes so life affirming that I cannot help but empathize:
I smiled and listened to the children cry and I felt the world glow. I threw up in a plastic bag from Walmart and I threw it out the window. The children were crying, but I didn't care now. I was free and I wasn't caught and I was driving our death car so fast and unafraid. I was destroying our lives now and it felt so fucking wonderful.
Is there any more important job for a writer, than to reveal and disclose, using their own specific lens, the condition of being human in all its myriad forms with the goal of engaging the reader? Does the writer have, if he or she is lucky to have lived an unsavory (or even a sound) life, a responsibility to "out" oneself for the better good? And even when the scene is bad, shouldn't the words aim to attain art-hood? Is this one way we forgive ourselves/ others?
But let me back it up to what brought this book to me. Well, Amazon Prime, yes, but it was also procured on the advice of a lot of interesting folks who inhabit Facebook. I think McClanahan is, how shall we say- a literary darling, an OG hipster, a diamond in the rough? I buy very few books, and finish even fewer, so when I do shell out the money and gobble the book in one sitting, it feels premonitory. Meant to be. The somewhat crudely designed Satan-life colored paperback waited, wedged in between kids' books and cloaked in dog hairs for a couple weeks and occasionally surfaced and then got re-buried... when I finally cracked it open it was after waking one afternoon in the gnarly grip of a panic attack. Nauseous, disoriented, tingly and with my heart banging under my shirt, I hobbled over to the fridge to get some ice water and collapsed on the bed while applying pressure to a spot on my wrist that would make me calm down and hopefully not puke or go into cardiac arrest. I don't like puking or my heart stopping, Scott does and doesn't. I looked over at the pile of books, hoping to be saved. There was Sarah, I picked her up and hoped she was worth it.
It begins promptly:
There is only one thing I know about life. If you live
long enough you start losing things. Things get stolen from
you: First you lose your youth, and then your parents, and then you lose your friends, and finally you end up losing yourself.
This mature chunk lives alone on the first page buffered by a bunch of white space. I will confess, I was worried that this was going to be an adventure in slightly more sophisticated but blathering Rumi type shit. But then the next page starts:
I was the best drunk driver in the world.
Whew. He claims to know only one thing about life and to be the best in the world at something, so of course, right away I understand all that as a lie. Lies I couldn't wait to read disproven. McClanahan proceeds to do a tremendous job of showing us exactly what he knows about life, and it is not a little, using accessible (dare I say pedestrian) language and imagery but also infusing the text with a disarming poetry, well placed humor, "manginal" charm, unwavering candor and oh my god that cinematic as fuck local color:
She came by my room and I had a cut off t-shirt on and my teeth were fucked up because I'd broken one of the front teeth in half. I shaved my head in the sink that week. I offered her an Old Milwaukee… Books everywhere, empty cans, papers scattered all over…I get depressed sometimes…I knew right then that I liked making her laugh more than I liked anything in the world.
That sounds like the best beginning to a date ever. Scott is my people. Though I am female, Korean and a California native, I could relate to his lifestyle and "station in life" on a gut level. Not to mention I too broke one of my front teeth in half, lived in many rooms strewn with books and papers, suffer from low grade depression, liked making lovers laugh more than anything in the world, spent the first date with my husband throwing rocks at beer bottles and had a short affair with terrible drink- Steel Reserve 211 tall cans if I must confess.
It is not just these specifics, these lifestyle choices and incidents, that may bind us to the narrator but more importantly the core emotions he so deftly splays out for us. The feels we all understand like heartache, desperation, loneliness, boredom, elation, hope, love, guilt... and he does this alarmingly well:
I started crying again and I asked her if she ever loved me. Her eyes dropped tears and she pointed to Sam and then she pointed to Iris who was playing in the hallway. I stood up again and I told her I'd leave for the night. I picked up my keys and I held them in my hand and I let them dangle free. I walked towards the door but then I fell back on my knees in front of her on the floor and scooted towards her on my little knee feet. I put my hands together in prayer and began to beg.
Please I said please.
My heart. Your heart. His heart. Sarah's heart.
It's not a bomb: it's a tampon.
Things that this book does, for better or worse, that a good love song does too:
- Gives you the green light to behave badly, obsessively in the name of love.
- Makes it okay if you did act foolish in the past, it reverse pathologizes longing.
- Gets you yearning to find the thing you just can't live without.
- Helps you feel less alone, like getting a hug you didn't know you wanted.
- Says the things you wanted to say, hey get out of my head fucker!
- Gets stuck in your head, in the good way, not the Taylor Swifty Blank Space way.
- Employs lyricism, rhythm, beats, hooks, bridges, silence...
- Makes you want to wear bunny suits and steal candy from a gas station with a lover.
Things this book transcends:
The Sarah Book rises above the finally popular critique of a "navel gazing bro book" or "white cis male cry baby lit" by tapping into the wholly universal, ferocious, undeniable interior that we all possess. There is a wicked nugget that lives in us all, whether we want to admit it or not. McClanahan reveals to us, in a relentless fashion, the parts of everyone that could arrive at the point where we hurt our children/ stalk another like prey/ plan double suicides/ love so hard we thought we wanted to die/ grind a dead kitten into the snow until it has vanished (yup). There is an authenticity here that cannot be duplicated or stuffed into a color/ gender/ political/ what-have-you box. However, note that the male author is an outlier or outsider, being of nefarious Appalachian roots. Also, he like, puts lipstick and girly shit on at some point. So, he always had that stuff going for him.
A trick (good kind) this book employs:
McClanahan uses one device a lot, but it's a good tactic that kept making my heart skip. It is this. He describes an emotionally charged scene or relays a bizarre thought, then throws us for a little drunken loop by capping it with an incongruous sentiment. The effect is, somehow sublime and worthy of investigation. Like this,
I imagined myself drinking all of the skin of the world and all of the blood of the world and the spirits of all my friends and I was drinking the air. I was melting my children and I was drinking them too. And they tasted great.
We fought about all the tiny things. We fought about nothing and we fought about everything. It was glorious.
My name was Scott McClanahan and I'd just shit the bed. I wasn't what people said I was. I was Scott McClanahan and I was celebrating life.
Alcohol/ illicit substance as narrative propellant:
Like Bukowski or Denis Johnson, McClanahan depends mightily on the intoxicating effects (and resulting actions) of addictive substances to drive his narrative and scenes. It is the drink, the actions of a drunkard, that bestow his vignettes (that smartly flash forwards and backwards in a cyclical manic procedure) with a frenetic brilliance. You just can't be a boring drunk. But just because you are a souse doesn't mean you are a good wordsmith. It's the conflation of these two elements, been wasted/ is wasted + skilled writer that can make magic happen. I mean, I don't drink anymore but... told you I was an enabler.
Crying in a crummy downtown LA orthopedic office of iniquity:
This is an autobiographical aside. I was waiting for my husband to finish physical therapy for his busted hand, a boxer's fracture, those who have punched something in fury will know what that is. I am waiting and waiting and the plastic chairs hurt my butt and the room smells like armpits, chicken wings, I swear, and beef jerky, double swear. McClanahan loves wings and jerky. Everyone is packed into the room like stinking cattle, it's hot as shit, the television set is stalled on a blinking "Hit Play" and the movie that they are failing to run is god awful, something with a CGI'd Brendan Fraser in it I think. Everyone here arrived via nasty bus, or janky wheelchair, or crap ass peeling Honda probably. It feels like limbo for the broken boned downtrodden, I belong and I don't. I bet McClanahan feels like that sometimes. I'm bored, digging around in my purse with no goal in mind, and there she is- I brought "Sarah". There are several opportunities to cry while reading this book but the segment that got me good was about Mr. King, a blind fucked Pug. I don't want to spoil it for you but imagine what it is like to be sitting in a waiting room full of impatient people who are eyeballing one another because what else is there to do (place has poor people wi-fi) and I am just crying and sniffling, pretending to be yawning hard. Boy, did I look stupid. I wished I could just scream- THIS IS US, ALL OF US. WE ARE KING!
There are no spoilers here, for as made clear by McClanahan, true life has no spoilers. As certain as you are born and die, so you do not know what lies ahead, the spoiler is null. Making peace with that truth while still maintaining hope in a future you cannot foresee is imperative. We must still engage in whatever moments we find ourselves in, even a Walmart parking lot, and we should do it to the tilt. Learning to be introspective about our crisis and joys, slapping that nitty gritty ass, is what I sense is at the crux of the book. It is what makes us better than apes (shut up PETA), what makes a life. Listen, The Sarah Book is the ultimate "flux show", every character and every object is like a glitch in a Tetris game. We are an army of glitches, but mostly, in a perfect world, we fit. We are never truly alone. Some of the very best books, in my opinion, continue to explore that phenomenon of togetherness in aloneness.
That is cheese cold chillin' on dentures.
Let's Conclude I Don't Want to Conclude:
My panic attack went away.
The Sarah Book is an epic love letter, it's a pictorial capsule of unplottable moments, it is a confession, it is an apology, it is a grappling, it is comedy central too. It is a portrait of one man in perpetual crisis and one tender woman in decline, it is a testament to the beauty of the small stories we tell one another. Sarah's stories are shared with us. McClanahan proves he was listening. He re-fashions her memories, he mythologizes her moments, turns Sarah and everything she touches into the sacred. What better love is there to have, than to never have had, than that?
Even when the faces from our past get blurry and the communications are few and far between, even when we are all on their death beds or taken by freak accidents, I can be certain, as McClanahan has shown, that the others will be there. They will come in flashes, and embed in our skin and saturate the air. Isn't this why people seek another? It's for someone to eat with, sleep with, do boring shit with, share stories with, explore anxieties with, tell scatological jokes to and maybe even form spawn with, but it is also to deal with impending endings. To not, die, alone.
Long live Sarah.
Those are vaginas, not old eyes.
 Why do I bring up Breton's Nadja? Because while reading Sarah, I happened upon an old annotation I wrote about another book I was obsessed with- Nadja, and it struck me that these two authors suffered in the same way, from a fiction/ nonfiction of a woman they had fashioned out of rabid desire and memories, check this:
The first line of Breton's French surrealist work written in 1928 inquires: Who Am I?
The first line of McClanahan American prose work written in 2017 declares: There is only one thing I know about life.
The philosophical thrust of both books is thereby established and I am propelled into these semi-autobiographical texts that operate like drawn-out fits of dreamlike passion and then waking obsessions over Nadja and Sarah. These narrators rapturous and sometimes tangential ramblings strike a fine balance struck between the poetic language of capriciousness and the sensible speeches of lucidity.
Breton says things like When I am near her I am nearer things which are near her.
McClanahan says things like:
Her face turned towards me and I kissed her on the mouth. It felt like:
The two women, who are pined for, unveil themselves as not solely the men's "creatures" or "specters" but rather as beings who are also parts of other lives/ will be parts of other lives. This way the women inadvertently alienate themselves from the mercurial cocoon that the narrators have spun around them.
Sarah and Nadja burst the author's figments of her. They burst their figments of them. He/ he bursts.
Upon cutting off ties with Sarah and Nadja, the narrators promptly proceed to ache for the women with a combustible infatuation, as one would over a newly dead lover. Nadja/ Sarah a ghost. Nadja/ Sarah their concoction. Nadja/ Sarah the abstractions who the men could not live without.
Breton/ McClanahan elevate the women to the level of a beautiful, mystical specimen of unfortunate internment. What an honor! In writing of the women, the men release their ladies from certain captivity while simultaneously keeping them in bondage to their nostalgia.
What I take away from Nadja and The Sarah Book is a way to communicate the confluence of mammalian love and human madness. The initial convulsions of an adult "crush" are hormonal and spiritual. A crush is based in fact and fiction. Exposed to dissection. Open to portent. Joyful in its high frivol. Obsessive until its inevitable death.
The closing sentence in Breton's book summarizes the structures of both The Sarah Book and Nadja, a delicious declaration of the nature of madness, longing and art: Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.