The Sarah Book
In the audiobook version of The Sarah Book, Scott McClanahan reads like he can’t wait for his novel to be over. He doesn’t rush, stumble, or falter, but instead adopts a distanced, impersonal numbness, letting his beautifully amateurish language and West Virginian accent breathe authenticity and life into his lonely world of Walmart parking lots and empty apartments, strip clubs and childhood homes. There’s an unshakeable malaise that comes with McClanahan’s reading that’s understandable; this book, and much of his writing, appears to be largely autobiographical (though he’s quick to deny this), and the lengths he goes to in order to reveal himself are at once shocking and absolutely refreshing.
This novel finds McClanahan in new territory, plumbing the depths of loss, divorce, fatherhood, and every type of love one can think of. In The Sarah Book, the narrator, known as Scott McClanahan, ruminates on his relationship and eventual divorce with the titular Sarah, the mother of his two children and one of his only close relationships. The story jumps backwards and forwards in time (he’s cited Alejandro Inarritu and Saul Bellow as influences, though Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine also jumps immediately to mind), crashing together scenes of giddy, early-romance selflessness and genuine love with later scenes that are stark and heartbreaking. This bipolar, kaleidoscopic technique is not as rigid as one might think. For example, in one of the lowest emotional points in the novel, there’s a sudden appearance of sentient chicken wings.
Scott McClanahan’s unending fascination with the ordinary fuels every layered, intricate moment; from the beautiful and meaningless conversations he and Sarah share to the mundanities of cleaning up after an incontinent dog, there’s a raw, diary-entry quality to the writing. The bare-bones prose is confrontational and the overarching themes are laid bare. McClanahan understands exactly what he needs to share and what he doesn’t. For the first time in McClanahan’s career, there’s a feeling of restraint, of things left unsaid, of stories unincluded propelling the stories that are. This creates a dizzyingly quick, fast-forwarded version of the lives of Scott and Sarah, the reader only catching the blur.
The Sarah Book is Scott McClanahan’s most honest and astonishing work to date. It captures a complete world of fully-realized characters, their complexities and psychological trip-wires plotted out exactly. It is both a lightning-fast read and a heavy, difficult endeavor. No wonder McClanahan sounds exhausted.
Reviewed by Tom Ronningen
Published by Tyrant Books. 2017.
ISBN 13: 978-0-9885183-9-1.