By Scott McClanahan
Six Gallery Press, 140 pp.
If you can't get Scott McClanahan to come tell you stories at your neighborhood bar, try just taking his book Stories and reading it aloud to friends. McClanahan's short stories are just that informal, and just that engaging.
McClanahan writes about life in small-town West Virginia as a boy, teen-ager and young man. There are 17 stories, rendered in double-spaced text, and you can read each one in about five minutes.
Told with a guileless tone, they begin with phrases like "The last time I saw Randy Doogan ..." and "You can see all kinds of strange things in Rainelle though." The stories are full of rueful comedy, moral ambivalence and poetic melancholy. They involve things like a man's arm getting ripped off by a lumber-mill saw; a protagonist's pointless running battle with a homeless panhandler; and a father's stubborn insistence on going to jail over a routine speeding ticket.
But McClanahan, an educator and filmmaker who lives in Beckley, W.Va. -- this is apparently his first book -- has mastered the art of seemingly artless transparency. He's a born raconteur with the disarming knack of sucking you into the narrative, the more offbeat the better.
Here's the opening of "Possums":
My Dad was something else though. I know he had this run in with a possum one time when we were standing around talking to this neighbor guy who was showing off his new truck. And of course I was sweeping off our driveway. I mean I hated sweeping off the driveway -- it was a driveway. But I guess my Dad was teaching something about sweeping off a driveway or something.
"Possums" continues with a kind of laidback humor, and ends on a note of unexpected exaltation. In "The Firestarter" -- in which the narrator figures a hit-and-run victim is dead because she has "this dead look on her face" -- he wonders if his mere presence is causing people to get hit by cars.
"Randy Doogan" begins as a shaggy-dog story about lending money to a half-remembered former high school classmate, but becomes a painful rumination on trust. "Poop Deck Pappy" is a strangely moving story about a broken-down old man's genuine love for a dead woman he never met. "The Prettiest Girl in Texas" finds the teen-age protagonist dragged to a low-rent strip club where a disfigured dancer's performance leads to an epiphany.
All the stories seem drawn together by "My Mom," a sketch near book's end composed mostly of stories of family tragedies the narrator's mother tells him, each rendered with the intense simplicity of a folk ballad.
Stories, oddly, lacks page numbers. While that might be an intentional informality, it's harder to excuse the frequent disappearance of paragraph indentation, or the numerous typos.
But none of that matters too much. Nor do McClanahan's mild stylistic tics, like repeating nouns for folkily poetic emphasis ("grinning a shit-eating grin"; "a dark so dark"), or the story or two that comes to a fairly banal resolution.
Mostly, you just want to know what happens next. What's next for the fourth-grade boy whose buddies all agree to dress up as baby dolls for a school pageant -- but then leave him the only one to show up in a dress? What becomes of the guy who falls in love with the woman who prank-calls him one night -- then keeps calling back?
Somehow, McClanahan manages to position himself just outside his narrator's adolescent dreams and little-boy misconceptions while remaining fully invested in them too.
Scott McClanahan reads at TNY Presents with Cathy Day, Paco Mahone and Laura Davis, plus live music by Justin Andrew. 8 p.m. Wed., Aug. 19. ModernFormations Gallery, 4919 Penn Ave., Garfield. $5 or potluck donation. tnypresents.blogspot.com