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I first came across Scott McClanahan's work in his 2013 "non-fiction lite" book, "Crapalachia." McClanahan's writing -- at turns immediate, clear, funny, affecting, raw and, above all else, alive -- grabbed me and would not let go. His novel "Hill William" followed in the same year, building on "Crappalachia," doing everything it did well, but raising the emotional and dramatic stakes. Within the space of months I had a new favorite writer.
It wasn't just McClanahan's prose that grabbed me. I was drawn to him because he was writing about a place I knew well, southern West Virginia, where he was born and raised and still lives. I grew up in Beckley and I still consider it home, even if I haven't lived there for a long time. West Virginia was a character in these stories, every bit as alive as the people who inhabit them, and as such these books felt something like home to me.
All of which made me worry when, soon after I read "Crappalachia" and "Hill William," I learned that McClanahan was writing a book about the end of his first marriage.
When I read his last two books I was still recovering from my own divorce. Like McClanahan and his first wife, my ex and I were both from Beckley. It's a small place and there were bound to be parallels in our respective stories. When I heard about his divorce book I was going through a period in which, no matter how well I was doing for long stretches, I could still be derailed fairly easily by a triggering memory or suggestion. Three or four years ago a book on this subject, set in that place, by a writer with McClanhan's gifts, seemed like more than I'd ever be able to handle. In fact, a small, selfish part of me even hoped it would never see the light of day and that McClanahan would move on to another project.
The last couple of years have been much better to me. I finally sloughed off the last bits of baggage from my divorce and, rather than get bogged down by old memories, I learned how all of it -- the good and the bad -- fit in the context of my life. I learned how to enjoy and appreciate what my life is rather than worry about what it is not or what it could've been if things had gone differently. Most importantly I got married again to a wonderful woman who did more than anyone to help me through it all. My life is pretty fantastic now. A book about a big messy divorce set in the hills of West Virginia isn't going to destroy me like it might've a few years ago.
McClanahan's "The Sarah Book," was published earlier this month after a long gestation. I'll never know how I would've received it in 2013 or 2014, but I couldn't be happier to have it now. It's a fantastic book, as raw and immediate as his previous work -- I devoured it in two sittings which could've easily been one -- but it possesses a greater emotional depth than anything he's written before. McClanahan has been described by some as an enfant terrible of independent publishing, but "The Sarah Book" is a work of a man maturing and growing. A book that could only be written by someone who has seen some shit, lived through it and learned something from it all.
Which is not to say that this is a happy and pat story in any way. The (I suspect only slightly) fictionalized story of McClanahan's divorce is not at all comforting. It's, above all else, about loss. And death. Not merely the formal loss of a lover through legal process or the figurative death of love or a marriage but about actual loss and literal death and about how all of the stories we tell ourselves and all of the parts we play in this life -- as husband and wife, among other things -- are, ultimately, meaningless. Indeed, he begins the book with this notion, giving the reader no illusions in its opening passage that it's about anything else:
"There is only one thing I know about life. If you live long enough you start losing things. Things get stolen from you: First you lose your youth, and then your parents, and then you lose your friends, and finally you end up losing yourself."
Sarah is a nurse and McClanahan constantly returns to the stories she'd tell him about patients who'd come through Beckley's ARH hospital where she works. Dead or dying people whose lives, for the most part, do not adhere to the conventional life and death narratives we're used to hearing in polite fiction. Scott and Sarah have an elderly dog who dies, and his death is not pretty or poetic either. Any effort Scott and Sarah make to impose some sort of sense on the end of their marriage backfires as well. Scott thinks for a time that the marriage can be salvaged, not because there is anything inherently salvageable in it, but because, dammit, that's how the story was supposed to go and how dare Sarah fuck with the ending? But as "The Sarah Book" goes on, McClanahan impresses upon the reader that, no, that's not how things go. Everything dies eventually. People. Dogs. Marriages. No matter what your plans for them happened to be.
Despite it all, though, it's not a sad book. At least it wasn't to me, because McClanahan shows us that, even if death is inevitable and entropy is undefeated, there are moments of grace to be found in life. Or, at the very least, moments when we can sit and appreciate that life is less of a drama than it is a brief period when we all just try to do the best we can and, sometimes, actually manage it.
Sarah can find humor -- and does, often -- even when life is bringing her to tears. Their children can find happiness being held upside down by their grandfather, even when their dad is falling apart. Scott and his friend Chris can find moments of joy even when both of them are at their worst. The elderly dog can experience one last good healthy piss on the way to the vet's office before his undignified end. Scott and Sarah can each find love again, with other people, even when it seemed like their divorce was the end of the world.
The final scene of the book features Scott and his new wife sitting down for burgers and fries with Sarah and her new husband with Scott and Sarah's kids in tow. After all of the drama of the previous 200 pages, life is all about slightly awkward conversation, french fries, ketchup on a mother's fingers and a three-year-old boy looking up at the sky at airplanes. Is it anticlimax or is it a clear-eyed realization that, no matter what goes on inside our heads and our hearts life, in all of its quotidian detail, goes on? I suppose one can take it any number of ways. But having lived through much of what McClanahan did in "The Sarah Book," I was happy to see it. Drama and pain can only sustain a person for so long and, since death and loss is inevitable, it's better to push that stuff aside as best one can and do as much living in the short time we have as possible.
"The Sarah Book" does a masterful job of chronicling the pain and drama of a divorce, but there is hope in it as well. We need to endure the former but acknowledge the latter, even when it seems impossible. Thankfully, we have someone as talented and insightful as Scott McClanahan as our guide.
Some people who take in interest in genealogy discover that they are Irish when they thought they were Scottish. Others find a long-lost cousin. When I began looking at my family history I found out that my great-great grandmother murdered my great-great grandfather with an axe on a snowy winter's night in Detroit, Michigan in 1910.
Nellie Kniffen's violent rampage and her husband Frank's grisly demise was front page news in Detroit for several weeks, but she and her crime were soon forgotten, both by the public and by her family. Those who remembered it tried hard to forget it and those who came after knew nothing about it at all.
Through research of public records, personal interviews and a review of the sensationalistic newspaper stories written before Frank Kniffen's body grew cold, I unearthed a chapter which had been torn out of my family's history. And I began to better understand the ghosts and demons which have haunted my family for over a century.
The story of Nellie and Frank -- Nellie Kniffen Took An Axe -- is available as a Kindle eBook for $2.99.
Today every urbanite's favorite faux-hillbilly -- J.D. Vance -- writes an op-ed in the New York Times about the health care system entitled "A Republican Health Care Fix." I've written a lot of words about this guy over the past year, but as long as people keep giving him platforms on which to share his vacuity, I'll be here to point out just how vacuous it is.
His broad point is not terrible. He thinks the recently stalled GOP health care bill is bad policy and bad politics and something better is needed. Not an earth-shattering argument -- everyone who is not Donald Trump or a Republican member of Congress agrees -- but give him points for saying it.
Beyond that, Vance is attempting, in his own Vancian way, to make a more salient good point: that there should be some sort of baseline of care for people and that no one in need of health care should have the hospital's doors slammed in their face simply because they're poor. While that should, again, not be a very tough bogey to meet, in this day and age it somehow is, especially for conservatives, so give him some points for saying that too.
The problem here, however, is the exact same problem he displayed in "Hillbilly Elegy": he completely misdiagnoses the cause of a real problem and, in doing so, ensures that any solutions for which he or his supporters would advocate are doomed to failure.
Vance's view of the problem: it's the government's fault that there is a health care crisis in America. He argues this by offering a simple-minded analogy about a pedestrian being hit by a government vehicle in order to make a broad "you broke it, you bought it" argument:
This is where the Republican Party hits an ideological barrier that it simply must power through before meaningful reform can happen. Yes, solving problems can be expensive, and yes, that money always comes from taxpayers. But that’s true when a government truck plows into a pedestrian. You break it, you buy it, and the logic applies equally whether the broken thing is an individual or a complex marketplace.
"The government broke health care" position is simply not true. There have been multiple books written analyzing why our health care system is expensive and, in many ways, broken. The uniform conclusion: that while some unique factors drive our costs up compared to other countries (i.e. the United States' unique position in drug research and medical innovation) most of the costs baked into the system are a function of administrative and marketing overhead unique to a for-profit healthcare industry, passing costs on to consumers.
We have a system which incurs massive costs for advertising, branding and the need for hospitals and doctors offices to bill dozens if not hundreds of different insurance companies in dozens if not hundreds of different ways. We have a system that delivers care to different populations via different programs and administrative means based on age, geography, financial status, ethnic background, job status and a dozen other factors, and each of those systems has developed its own infrastructure, raising costs through massive complexity. On top of that a cut is taken for profit. In light of all of this, Vance's premise -- the government broke our healthcare system! -- is exactly backwards.
At this point some might be inclined to say "Hey, Vance is not an expert in this area. You acknowledge that he cares and that he means well, so cut him some slack. He's talking about important stuff!" Sorry, not gonna cut him slack. Partially because Vance has political aspirations now and should not be allowed to get away with broad, misleading generalizing about pressing policy matters of the day. Mostly, though, I won't cut him slack for the same reason I didn't cut him slack for "Hillbilly Elegy."
In my review of that now famous book I noted that, as here, Vance meant well. And that, as here, he was talking about a very real problem: the myriad crisis facing people in rural areas and the working class at large. But just as he does here, he misdiagnosed the cause of the problem. He argued that the crisis is attributable to a lack of character and work ethic by those suffering from it. That the white underclass from which he rose is struggling so mightily because it is not taking responsibility for its own decay. That their moral failures, as opposed to economic challenges, were to blame.
The arguments in "Hillbilly Elegy" were utter hogwash. Hogwash, it should be noted, that adheres pretty closely to the views of the Silicon Valley venture capital class and from which Vance more recently hails and which would pass muster with GOP political leaders who will, eventually, be asked to aid his political ambitions. But more importantly, it's hogwash that stands in the way of solving the very problems Vance claims to care about.
If one does not acknowledge the external forces working against the victims of the 21st century economy, one can never hope to solve them. If one blames the victims of that economy, one can easily wash one's hands of them. Indeed, the prevalent opinion of people I know who have read "Hillbilly Elegy" and who are not personally familiar with rust belt or Appalachian life is "Those poor people. Their problems seem impossible to solve!"
In this "Hillbilly Elegy" is a work of absolution. It reassures its readers -- mostly coastal and/or urban-dwelling elites -- that they and the system which has benefitted them is not to blame for what's happening in places like Ohio and Kentucky. In turn it gives them license to look away after they've gotten their 272 pages worth of rural poverty porn, content in the notion that they cannot do anything to help and thus cannot be criticized for turning away.
His take on the health care system is no different. He cares. He claims that he wants things to be better. But by blaming the government for the problem he necessarily encourages readers to get behind market-based solutions which are actually responsible for the problem. Yes, he allows that the government should play some role in that, but his "you broke it, you bought it" framing ensures that that role should be limited and exercised only out of shame and guilt. After all, if you break a wine decanter at Crate and Barrel, you don't get to make decisions about restocking and inventory. You cut a check and, preferably, get the hell out of the store, never to return.
It's not unheard of for a patient to get better after a doctor misdiagnoses her condition. But it's not common, especially if, like the current state of the U.S. health care system, the condition is serious, complex and requires a lot of hard work to cure. It's also the case that, once a doctor has made a spectacularly wrong diagnosis, one should not go back to him the next time one gets sick.
Yet platforms like the New York Times continue to turn to Dr. Vance, under the delusion that he has insight and solutions. This despite the fact that, when it comes to public policy, J.D. Vance has already proven himself to be a quack.
Daniel Drezner wrote a column in today's Washington Post about the foray of some "Silicon Valley thought leaders" into politics. The short version: Zynga’s Mark Pincus and LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman have launched a platform aimed at rallying people into political causes outside of the current party structure, forming some sort of center-left, pro-business movement and basically "disrupting" political engagement. Or something, in the way that only Silicon Valley types talk about such things.
Many have been sharply critical of this and similar initiatives. Drezner is critical, but less so, noting that even though Pincus and Hoffman are bound to fail, we should nonetheless take them and other Silicon Valley types seriously when they wade into politics, saying that Democrats should keep "their neoliberal billionaires inside the tent."
My distaste for neoliberalism notwithstanding, I don't necessarily disagree with Drezner. I don't believe anyone should be kept outside the tent if it can be helped. If they advocate good policies and want to make the world a better place - of if they are open to discussion about making the world a better place and share at least some common ground -- I want them in that tent. That's the point of all of this, after all.
At the same time, I share some of the skepticism many have about tech giants wading into politics, mostly because of the frankly odd manner in which tech giants tend to wade and the manner in which the media and the public has tended to discuss such wading.
So let's put it all into perspective, shall we?
By accident of my age and some friendships I made years and years ago, I know a number of people who are either Silicon Valley denizens themselves or people who at least orbit that world. They used to be programmers or startup employees, now they're mid-to-upper management guys. Some have made a lot of money. Others haven't. Some are academics now. But they all speak that odd Silicon Valley language and, at times, share a bit of it with me. It's a strange world, but so too is any somewhat insular subculture with which one is unfamiliar. Like any other, there is jargon and custom and behavior that those of us on the outside don't quite understand.
The people in that world, however, aren't fundamentally different than those of us who are not. Contrary to how tech moguls are often described, they have needs, desires and opinions that are not of some other planet.
When the election hit last year, a lot of Silicon Valley types freaked out, just like a lot of the rest of us did, because it did not conform to expectations. Most of them never thought that Trump would win and, like a lot of us, they started to question the assumptions they harbored. Assumptions which they thought were safe. As I said, Silicon Valley culture can be insular and, of course, Silicon Valley sits in the Bay Area, which is far more politically homogenous than a lot of places. While I disagree with so much of what has been written about so-called "bubbles," I don't think it's unreasonable to say that many of the political assumptions held by Silicon Valley types were less-challenged and more strongly held than those held by some of us in the Midwest, making the freakout of the Silicon Valley types a bit more pronounced than our own.
There are a lot of transplants in Silicon Valley. My friends are from Ohio, many others are from other places. During the post-election freakout, a lot of them asked me or their friends back home, "WHAT HAPPENED TO OHIO?" or "WHAT HAPPENED TO MICHIGAN?" Soon those panicky questions turned to more thoughtful ones like "what can I do to help Ohio?" or "what can I do to help Michigan?"
Some -- like venture capitalist-turned-author J.D Vance or former Uber executive Brian McClendon -- have moved back to their home states and have vowed to take an active role in politics. Some, while staying in California, have vowed to funnel money back home to political causes or to otherwise become engaged in local politics from afar. Some are still trying to figure it out the answer to that question. Some only asked that question for a while and then got back to the business of Silicon Valley.
Others, like Pincus and Hoffman, are simply trying to apply what they know to the problem. To combine their life's work with politics, while bringing the jargon and weirdness of their particular subculture along for the ride. Thus you read articles about entrepreneurs wanting to "disrupt democracy" and about how "thought leaders" are going to bring bold new innovation to a tired industry, just like they did so many times before. Because most in the media don't have a super strong grip on either business or technology, the coverage, like all the coverage of these folks which has come before, is often comically credulous.
Here's the thing, though: you can't "disrupt" politics, let alone public policy. Not in any fundamental way. Politics and policy will always come down to one's values and ones goals and how clearly those values and goals are communicated to voters. Voters who have shown, time and time again, that they will respond to ideas and promises, not branding and cultural framing on its own. You can try to sell them "innovation" and "the future" all you'd like, but they will not get on board with you unless you tell them what you plan to do, in very basic terms, or what it is you stand for, in very plain terms. Voters do not do Silicon Valley cloudspeak.
In light of that, I've talked to my friends in Silicon Valley about what, exactly, Silicon Valley actually wants. What are its political values. They have some ideas. They're not crazy or disruptive or innovative, really. They're a lot of things many people support and some things only a few people support, but they're pretty conventional, politically speaking:
All of this adds up to Silicon Valley being just like and other industry, sector or collective of activists. It wants what's good for it, in its conception of the world. And those wants are all things that have been discussed over and over again by any number of parties, politicians and interest groups. It's not sui generis.
In light of that, the next time you hear about a tech billionaire getting into politics or a group of entrepreneurs putting together some killer app that purports to change the game forever, note their status, but just for a moment. Note their financial power, but not in any way you wouldn't note the financial power of a media mogul or an investment banker who enters the political fray. Then: ask them what it is, exactly, they stand for and ask them if they have a good idea about how to implement it or to convince a majority of people to get behind it. If they stand for good things and have good ideas, join them. If they don't, don't. As I have argued before, there is no magic bullet when it comes to this stuff.
What we should not be doing is what so many in the press have been doing lately, which is treating these guys as if they're magical unicorns with heretofore unprecedented ideas, with plans to disrupt democracy forever.