The table of contents for Scott McClanahan’s The Collected Works Vol. 1 reads like a set list for a night of boozy storytelling. There’s “The Homeless Guy,” “The Chainsaw Guy” and “My Dad and the Cop.” There’s “Kidney Stones” and “Hernia Dog” and “The Prettiest Girl in Texas.” Truly, even before you read the first line of the first entry in this slim collection of stories, you have a sense of McClanahan the guy, and a sense of his work: These are tales like those we tell in person, over beers and among friends. They’re sometimes funny and sometimes bleak, and they reveal as much about ourselves as they do about anyone else in them.
I stumbled onto The Collected Works because of its cover (adages be damned), which is a cute (and legally ballsy?) imitation of a Penguin Classic, noticeably irreverent only on second glance. None of the 28 stories in the collection is more than a few pages, and most end in pseudo-philosophical punchlines that sometimes make you want to laugh and shed a tear at the same time. As author Sam Pink writes in the afterword:
“[McClanahan] writes in a way that is conscious of both his own absurdity and that of others, without overdoing either. He makes it really easy to like the narrator and to learn from the narrator’s experiences. Scott also knows how to balance humor and sadness.”
Of course, I don’t want to suggest that TCW is just a collection of anecdotes. Rather, McClanahan has a way of drawing us in with a smile, until we find ourselves suddenly confronted with the darkest elements of the human condition. I’m inclined to compare him to Israeli author Etgar Keret (though in the interest of full disclosure, I tend to compare most short story writers to Keret), as both pick at the corners of weighty subjects with just the right amount of humor.
Here’s a typical McClanahan intro, from “The Rainelle Story”:
“I grew up in western Greenbrier County, West Virginia in a town called Rainelle. If I had to tell you about Rainelle, I would tell you about the weirdness. I’d tell you about One Armed Johnny and how he lost his arm. They didn’t call him One Armed Johnny back then.
They just called him Johnny.”
Another one, from “The Homeless Guy”:
“It wasn’t my fault he threw a sandwich at my car.”
I mean, come on. I just want to buy a pitcher, tuck my legs up under a blanket and listen to Scott tell me stories until I fall asleep and spill beer on myself.
Certain characters make repeat appearances in TCW, a nice touch that makes it feel like part collection, part memoir. There’s a series of stories on McClanahan’s mom and dad, and a few mentions of a past girlfriend, Kim, and his wife Sarah. But McClanahan’s true talent is making everyone a character: an old dog that hangs around an elementary school; a quick-witted prisoner taking a creative writing class; a one-armed stripper at a seedy club. McClanahan is the type of writer whose subjects you can see as though they’re standing right in front of you, the type of writer who makes you start looking twice at people IRL: the strangers around you on the train or in front of you in the coffee line. Where’s that dude off to? What’s that woman’s deal? In his stories, one somehow sees human existence on both the macro and micro level simultaneously: how big the world is, and how small ours.
It’s possible/probable that McClanahan is already a big deal, that I’ve just been too busy reading YA fiction to adequately keep up with the hot short story haps. But however popular he may be now, he should be moreso. Popular enough to be writing irreverent New Yorker essays, but not so popular that CBS tries to option a TV show based on his life (because they would, and it would be terrible). McClanahan’s stories are simple and sweet and sad and funny and various combinations thereof. You can recommend them to your brother or mom or boss or a stranger you met at the grocery store. They’re accessible and concise and perfect for bite-sized respites from your day—enjoy one over a cigarette, or on the bus, or during a commercial break. Just enjoy them asap, or I’ll throw a sandwich at your car.
TITLE: The Collected Works Vol. 1
AUTHOR: Scott McClanahan
PAGES: 124 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Crapalachia, The Sarah Book (forthcoming)
SORTA LIKE: Etgar Keret plays pool in a dive bar
FIRST LINE: “The last time I Saw Randy Doogan was just a couple of years ago.”