The Short Version: Scott, in the present, is having some trouble – something’s off, in his head. He reflects back on his childhood – a typically misspent youth – and wonders if perhaps something that happened back then, in the hills of West Virginian Appalachia, something might’ve happened to mess him up in the present. These reflections sort of take over, showing the reader just how Scott got to the place he is now.
The Review: Part of the reason I look forward to the Tournament of Books every year is that, inevitably, I will discover an author I might’ve otherwise never heard about – or at least never gotten around to. Last year, to my enduring entertainment (and hope that we will one day become actual friends), it was Miles Klee and his excellent debut novel Ivyland. This year, I think it’s Scott McClanahan’s Hill William that takes the “never would’ve gotten around to this otherwise” prize – and I’m damned glad I made the time.
Firstly, let’s note the book itself. It’s a tiny little thing, clocking in at a smidge over 200 pages but the pages are short and stout – the book fits into a jacket pocket, but not a back pocket. It stands out on a shelf almost purely because of its odd size.
Then you pick it up – and what should, by all rights, be some kind of crazy wild writing (judging from the vibe of the Goodreads & critical reviews out there) ends up being a really wonderful evocation of a well-spent/misspent youth. And the lasting effects that such a youth can have on a ‘grownup’.
I won’t deny that there’s some truly weird stuff in this book. Awkward sexual encounters, mostly – kids experimenting, doing things that undoubtedly seem strange or horrible to the grown-up reader but that probably didn’t seem like much else other than exploration as a kid. And for the first time I can think of, at least in recent memory, McClanahan pulls off the narrative ‘voice’ of this kind of kid – by not seeming at all like he’s trying to write like a kid. The book doesn’t evoke childhood so much as it evokes what we remember childhood to be – or at least what I remember it to be, even though my suburban PA childhood was pretty far removed from the West Virginian childhood of our main character (Scott, whose might also possibly be Scott McClanahan – it’s unclear and I’m okay with that (although, whoa, two books in a row for ToB X with versions-of-author-as-narrator)). McClanahan introduces, in an early chapter, an image of the mountains surrounding Rainelle, WV – and the image that leaps into your mind is one of mountains and trees and wilderness and the sun lighting up the sky as it sets and it’s taking forever to set and the kids are all out playing some game while the parents are – oh, who the hell knows what the parents are doing, who cares? Because we kids are out running around until it gets too dark to see.
And it’s a time before concerns over locking doors, it’s a time before concerns over kids doing stupid things – because kids always do stupid things and always have done stupid things, why the sudden increase in helicopter-parenting? – and while that’s a good thing, I think, it’s also… that lack of complication can be a bad thing, too. McClanahan almost lets you forget that the novel opened up with a nearly-thirty Scott in a fight with his wife where he punched himself in the face a few times. It’s a jarring opening and yet he lulls you into this security of memory (Tennessee Williams, eat your heart out) before bringing us full-circle to the present and seeing Scott try to understand the man he has become based on the things that happened to him as a kid.
The writing itself is compact but clear as crystal and completely comprehensible. This is not the sort of novel that (nor, as it would seem, is McClanahan the sort of writer who) needs to try and deploy linguistic overachievement in order to “tell the story” – instead, McClanahan just speaks plainly and humanly and, what do you know, his form of tough gritty writing ends up reading like a refreshing glass of spring water. …That was a terrible metaphor but hopefully, if you get a chance to even skim a few pages of this book, you’ll see what I mean. There’s something that cuts right to the heart of American adolescence in this book – but adolescence in a time now past, a time before computers and iPhones and the ennui of the modern teen. A scene where Scott debuts as quarterback plays out like the sort of late summer memory I have from watching my neighbor debut as QB when he was maybe 15 and I was maybe 7 or 8. Today, that pass Scott threw would’ve been up on YouTube in moments – not because it was exceptional necessarily but because that’s how these things happen now. McClanahan is writing about a time that I can still associate with, in terms of my childhood. I wonder if future generations, or even people only a few years younger than me, will understand this book in the same way as I did – or if they’ll approach it from a more clinical, less elemental standpoint.
Rating: 4 out of 5. I have to say, I really didn’t like the ending. The twist on adolescent America is great but once the story comes back to the present – especially once present-Scott goes back to Rainelle – it sort of sputtered to the finish line for me. The discomfort I could brush aside when seeing the kids doing stupid things was now actually very real when nearly-30-year-old Scott did a stupid thing. But I see why McClanahan did it and, hey, that’s the story he means to tell. But for me, the reason the book is worth reading is that sense of captured old-school summers. The simplicity of growing up, before everything happened. This book made me want to go run through a field or play hide-and-seek under the streetlights on a quiet suburban road. So, thanks, Scott.
(This review originally appeared at TNBBC – check it: http://thenextbestbookblog.blogspot.com/2014/01/drew-reviews-hill-william.html)