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It Feels Like a Prayer: a review of Hill William by Scott McClanahan photo

Maybe it’s the change of season. I think I always get a little sad after Labor Day. Maybe it’s because this is my daughter’s senior year and I’m already terrified of losing her, of being left here in our house alone after spending almost every day of eighteen years with her, of having an existential crisis when she leaves. I think I’m having one now, preemptively. I’m already worried how I’ll fill my time. I have to find something other than just writing. I know what can happen to women after their children go off into the world. I’ve read about them in newspaper articles a paragraph long: “so-and-so was found naked in her front yard ‘raking rabbits.’” I remember reading that in the local paper when I was twenty-five, of being terrified of being the age I am now, the age the woman raking rabbits was then. I remember my best friend’s mother being hospitalized our sophomore year in college. She’d been on one long steady crying jag for weeks, she said. She just didn’t know how to stop.

Maybe it’s the fact that I’m trying to finish a book I’m not sure I should ever publish, not only because it may be too ambitious and just not “work,” but because it might hurt those closest to me. I’m having a hard time figuring out my own sense of morality. My role as artist versus that of wife and mother. How to be honest without causing pain. How to not be a horrible person and still write the books I have inside of me.

It is probably a combination of all these things. This sudden end of summer depression. This onset of loneliness. The first week I am left alone in the house and already I am losing it.

I sat and bawled for half an hour after finishing Hill William in one swift read through this morning, beginning to end in an hour. Granted, I was flipping pages pretty fast and skimming sections, not because they were boring, but because I had to find out as soon as possible what happened next. I needed to know what had happened to my friend. Why he was hitting himself. Why he had all this anger and sadness inside him.

I had texted Scott prematurely, after only reading the first story and skimming a little more, to tell him how good the book was. I was really in love with the opening story, which he had read a couple weeks earlier when he was here in Ann Arbor.

“Thanks,” he texted back. “That makes me feel better. I’m sort of running from that book…”

I didn’t know yet what he meant, why he was running. But I knew the impulse. I have been running from my writing for years. I have been running from the novel I am working on the entire time I have been writing it. Currently the title is “I Am Running Out of Me,” but maybe it should be titled, “ I Am Running from Myself.”  It seems like all of us who write anything the least bit personal, the least bit seeped in our own lives, are always a little on the run, from our husbands and wives, our parents, our children, ourselves. My friends who claim not to write about themselves, tell me it is the easier way to go. They advise me to try it. But I don’t think it’s a question of trying. I think of it more as how we are each made up, what compels us. Like how some people sing opera and others folk. Or how some people can smoke cigarettes and not become addicted or try heroin a time or two and have no further desire to do it again.

Michael W. Clune writes about this distinction in another book that overtook my life recently, White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin. “I should probably say that my experience with the drug, although rather common, is by no means shared by everyone. For many other people, the dust inside the white tops is strangely inert. It doesn’t do much to them. My friend Dave, for example. In Dave’s case, dope’s power seemed strangely confined to the time he did it. While it was in his system, he thought it was marvelous. But the next day he could only remember a kind of sleepy feeling, and had no wish to do it again.”

The thing is, not only do I feel compelled to write stories like that, stories that ring personal, I feel compelled to read them too. The first story in Hill William is called “Psychiatrists and Mountain Dew.” I’d heard Scott read it, as I mentioned, but as I read it on the page for the first time, I knew it would be a story I’d remember the rest of my life, like Denis Johnson’s “Emergency” or Raymond Carver’s “Careful.” Maybe it’s because it doesn’t feel like one of those made up kinds, but just like a story your best friend tells you about something that has happened to him. A confession. Something he confides in you. (Isn’t this how everything Scott writes feels?)

“I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop because it felt good.

Just like right now I find myself getting ready to do it.

I hit myself.

I feel the blood surging to my head.

I hit myself.

I feel my jaw tingling.

I hit myself.

It feels like a prayer.

I hit myself.

It feels like something strange.

I hit myself.

It feels like something beautiful.”

There are few words to describe the feel of the room when you hear Scott read this story live. You really have to be there. It’ll feel something like magic. Reading it to myself this morning I felt a similar sense of magic. Then I did what I always do, I skipped to the back of the book. There were a few stories at the end I recognized from reading with Scott on tour a year earlier. But reading them here, together, in the context of the book, they felt more sober, somehow, more somber.

It’s easy in a reading setting, the audience wanting to laugh, to have a good time, to offer a lightness to a heavy subject. Reading these stories alone in my house, it was hard to believe we had all laughed when he’d read them. And yet, there was a sense of humor about the way he wrote them, a levity offered the reader to alleviate some of the darkness. Or maybe this is a choice the author has made, not to allow the darkness fully to envelope him.

I think this is why I started crying after I finished the book, after I texted Scott to tell him how special he is, to thank him for writing this book, and for being a friend.

Because despite everything contained in this book (and all his books), despite fighting a darkness similar to what most of us fight, Scott has chosen to present himself with a lightness (for our sake? His? Both?).

I remember a friend of mine talking about how she had taken a class taught by Denis Johnson, of how the first day of class he had bawled like a baby, of how the class had just sat there, still, silent, no one knowing how to take it, what to do. This was long after he had gotten sober. Or I’m presuming it was. I don’t really know, to tell you the truth.

I think some of us have come through some things that have left us tender, more vulnerable to emotion. We are always on the verge of losing it, of bawling our eyes out.

When I read the stories Scott writes, when I hear the stories Scott tells, I feel filled with every emotion – heartache, gratefulness, anguish, self-loathing, love – I have felt so far in my lifetime. Which is similar to how I feel whenever I’m in Scott’s presence, whether he’s reading in a bookstore or driving me around Detroit looking for Eminem’s childhood home. I feel full, in a good kind of way, not bloated but sated, contented, alive.

If there are people amongst us who have lived several lives, who are, as we say, “older souls,” I am sure Scott is one of them. Or maybe he is the sort of person who soaks up and remembers every moment of life, who keeps all of those moments alive inside him, to conjure and relive and offer up for us. And it doesn’t matter where he’s from. Where he’s from is lipstick on the kiss. But the stories are universal and inside all of us already. Scott’s just remembering them for you, so you won’t forget. How it felt the first time you carved your initials into the soft belly of a turtle with a pocket knife, or walked through the town with your pet hamster, or got called a “faggot,” or rubbed Vaseline on your penis in the woods with your best friend. How you feel when your marriage is falling apart because you have all this anger inside you and you can’t control your anger and your wife has that look in her eye like she’s scared, like she’s afraid of you. How you feel right then, on the verge of losing everything. How you feel now, all alone.

And the best part about it is, after he tells you all these things you forgot, about yourself and him and all of us, when you’re feeling that lonely feeling, the kind that scares you a little, or a lot, he goes and tells you he loves you. Because he and you are one now.

“So say these words like a spell and it shall be true.

Your name is me.

Your name is me.

And even though I’m far away by now, I have a new name too.

My new name is you.

My new name is you.”

image: Andromeda Veach