[REVIEW] A Tender Mercy: Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book

sarah book


Tyrant Books, 2017


We are all waving so desperately hello.


There is only one thing I know about life. If you live long enough you start losing things.

Semi-autobiographical Scott McClanahan gets drunk and puts his kids in the car. He’s always doing stupid shit like getting drunk and putting his kids in the car and forgetting about it. I think about how I would kill myself before I would get drunk and put Silas in the car and how I would kill Silas’ father before I would let him get drunk and put Silas in the car too, and then I think about resisting the impulse to judge characters in books, but here is semi-autobiographical Scott McClanahan getting drunk and putting his kids in the car. I think about pressure and how things only come to us when we’re ready for them and how that must mean I’m ready for this even though I don’t feel that way. He drives and the kids cry and my stomach tightens and he throws up in a plastic bag from Wal-Mart and the world glows, and I take a sip of wine and feel the warmth and understand everything but there is the simple fact of getting drunk and putting your kids in the car.

Fuck you, semi-autobiographical Scott McClanahan.

This will be difficult I know because I can’t read outside of myself anymore, just like I can’t do anything outside of myself anymore, as someone without a Silas, the way other people read books with Silases in them saying oh yes this must be a hard thing and nodding their heads and not understanding, understanding theoretically which is the same as not understanding, and I used to read like those people but I read differently now.

What can I do?

The cover is black and blue like the walls of my apartment and I sit in my black chair looking at the walls in between reading the book and the black clock on the bookcase has an orange second hand that spins instead of ticks so that time looks like it flows, in a circle. Both types of second hands give me anxiety but when the time looks like itself the anxiety is less. It’s a good cover.

He ripped that cover off a Guns n’ Roses record, Silas’ father says.


Yeah. It’s the exact same thing.

So I look up the Guns n’ Roses record and goddamn it he’s right, it is the cover of Use Your Illusion II so I tell him, He must have done that for a reason. Then I ask if Guns n’ Roses will be pissed about it.

Probably, he says.

I tell him well Guns n’ Roses ripped off Raphael but he can’t do anything about it because he’s dead so what does it matter. It all comes full circle. Then I show him the School of Athens and he says hmmm. I point to the unnamed philosopher and say Look, there’s Scott McClanahan. There’s Scott McClanahan in the School of Athens and Guns n’ Roses put him on their album. He says, hmmm. Then I ask if I should listen to the record. I feel like I’m missing something now and think about what I’ve lost in my life by not having paid any attention to Guns n’ Roses. I worry that this review will be terrible and I feel ashamed about my shitty knowledge of American culture. He says the record is okay and goes to do something else.

Be invisible, Scott. Be invisible.

My best friend Lindsay who I’ve written about before used to be a body piercer and once got a silicone heart implant in her chest. The magician made a little incision right at her heart chakra and slid the silicone heart inside. But flesh doesn’t split clean like a pocket. There’s muscle and tissue to be pushed aside and in the end the stitches looked awful and the heart always leaned a little to the left. So then she had to get the silicone heart removed. The magician gave her seven shots of anesthetic but when it was time for the heart to come out her body didn’t want to let it go. It had assimilated it. The magician pulled at the heart and Lindsay came up off the table with it. He gave her one more shot and said Girl we’ve reached the legal limit now and she thought she was dying and then it was over. It’s the way I’ve started looking at pain. You reach the legal limit but you can always take a little bit more.

I’m telling you stories. Trust me.[1]

Semi-autobiographical Scott McClanahan tries to kill himself with Tylenol. The first two bottles are Tylenol PM and he takes them and the third bottle is children’s Tylenol – mistake – and he realizes he can’t kill himself with children’s Tylenol and decides to throw up. He throws up quietly at first because Sarah hated how loud he threw up. But then I realized Sarah wasn’t here so I could throw up however loud I wanted. I stuck my finger deeper and then I gagged and vomited like who I was.

I vomited up kisses and love. I vomited up the way she smelled like cigarettes and tropical fruit gum.

The best way to show respect to something is to not write about it. But real-life Scott McClanahan knows what he’s doing.

Remember the Buddhist monk who spent a lifetime writing a letter about love and all he knew about it. He wouldn’t let anyone in the temple while he was writing and it was very serious. After he died everyone came to see what he had come up with and the letter was blank. What a shitty monk, thinks semi-autobiographical Scott McClanahan. It’s like the story about the philosophy student who was the only one to pass the final. The professor wrote Why? on the blackboard and the student wrote back, Why not? My brother told me this when I was younger except he said it like it was him. I went through middle school thinking he was some kind of genius. By the time I found out he made it up, I didn’t think it was genius and he didn’t either.

You beat the liver out of a goose to get a paté; you pound the muscles of a man’s cardia to get a philosopher.[2]

This is the book written after all the lights have gone out. Because the world is a kind of dark most of us don’t know how to see in, until someone teaches us. The second sight is a lesson from Death. There’s nothing to follow but the sound of your breathing.

But not all dark places need light, I have to remember that.[3]

As for life,

In one life we are married.

In one life we are dead.

In one we are rich.

In one we are poor.

In one we are parents.

But always we belong to others.


I told Sarah I was going to live at Wal-Mart until she changed her mind about the divorce.

I’m writing this in my parents’ walk-in closet which is where I go when things start to fall apart which is where I went this time things started falling apart. Maybe soon I will think I’m lucky, or maybe I think I’m lucky now, because beyond pain and heartbreak it’s always lucky to read what you’re living, but you only feel lucky when you know something more than you think. Things are falling apart in my life the way they are in semi-autobiographical Scott McClanahan’s life except in my life I am Sarah and we are both learning what it’s like to be Scott.

What we’ve learned so far is:

Why is the measure of love loss?[4]

In New York I wrote my first novel Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover and then moved into my parents’ walk-in closet to finish Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover and then got pregnant with my son Silas and then I had to stop feeling so scared and small. I never thought anyone would want to publish Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover but nine months later someone did and my message in a bottle went up in lights. And everyone wanted to know: Is this book fiction or non-fiction?

You can always count on people to ask the least interesting questions, but this one is symptomatic of something worse. It’s: how much work did you actually do? And: could I do something just like this? Except: it’s harder to write nonfiction because stories make sense but this is your life.

I never look at a painting and ask, “Is this painting fictional or non-fictional?” It’s just a painting.[5]

And so Sarah McClanahan gives birth to their daughter Iris. She had to be induced, like me. She had an epidural, like me. She had the presence of mind to give herself an enema beforehand so she wouldn’t shit on the delivery table. It didn’t occur to me to do that. If you’re going through childbirth you have every right in the world to shit on the delivery table. Everything is exploding and Death is tapping you on the shoulder saying, Are you ready? So I shit on the delivery table. I shit on the delivery table and tore my unwaxed pussy bringing forth a soul.

It was shaped like a halo.

They put him on my chest red and steaming. His father tried to cut the cord and it wouldn’t cut and he tried again and it still wouldn’t cut. I thought of the Fates’ scissors contorting. He cut it finally and they stitched me up. I thought about the ways I’d stretched, for fists and dicks and objects and now a child that had come out of instead of into, and how the stretching is different then. How there’s a hole now that will never close. I thought of the tattoo between my hips that reads Pulvis et Umbra and how when I got it I thought it would make sense if I had children and it would make sense if I didn’t. All we are is dust and shadow and dust begets dust and my dust was screaming and screaming and then opened his eyes at me and said, Welcome to the world.

Let the people who never find true love keep saying that there’s no such thing.[6]

Scott McClanahan puts a crossword puzzle in The Sarah Book which is the hardest crossword puzzle in the world but he says you can try to solve it too so I try to solve it too, but I only get as far as the first two:

6 across is the name of your first love.

7 down is the name of the one who broke your heart. You belong to them.

I can’t give this book to anyone now because I used pen.

In Sarah’s hospital where she works there’s a schizophrenic patient with tattoos all over his body and voices in his head and none of the drugs are helping and then Sarah has an idea. She speaks to his hallucination. She looks over to where the patient is looking and speaks to the devil woman sitting in the chair. The devil woman tries to start some shit so Sarah puts her in a headlock and kicks her in the face and chases her out of the room. And the schizophrenic patient says Thank god. Because someone was finally helping.

All you need is someone to put their hands on your mind. Then you will know what happiness is.

Are you happy right now? Well just wait.


We started calling the place we lived the apartment of death.

I find the Guns n’ Roses reference. Semi-autobiographical Scott McClanahan listens to “November Rain” fourteen times. I want to tell Silas’ father about it but we can’t talk about things like that anymore. We talk about the apartment. We talk about schedules. He tells me terrible things and I listen. In this book I am Sarah and I’m reading about me.

There are hungry black kittens in the snow and semi-autobiographical Scott McClanahan feeds them hot dog chunks from the fridge in the apartment of death then decides to go buy the best hamburger meat he can find and feed it to the kittens, because when there’s a hole in your heart you pour your love out on the world. He feeds them and loves them and one day he accidentally runs one over. Squish. We can’t help but kill what we love and flatten the remains until they’re gone. Until the world can wash it all away and make it new.

For every tear you’ve cried, so shall the rain fall.[7]

Semi-autobiographical Scott McClanahan has a panic attack in the night when he’s trying to get baby Sam to sleep and baby Sam won’t sleep. He puts him on the floor in the bathroom and imagines baby Sam can talk and is saying, What are you going to do now? You’re totally fucked. So he does the only thing to do when things get to be too much inside. He throws up. He throws up a black bile that doesn’t look like anything he ever ingested because the body’s response to trauma is to expel the dark. And then: the darkness laughs. And his mother comes in to see what’s going on and no matter how old we are we still need our mothers to hold our babies when our hands shake and tell us it’s going to be okay. Our mothers are always stronger than we are.

I move into my parents’ home while Silas’ father is moving out of our home and I put Silas to sleep in his crib in my childhood bedroom and my mother lets me sleep in her bed. I roll myself in a blanket like a cocoon and listen to the sound of her breathing and think my night thoughts. I think about this book and I think about my son and I think about love. I think about what love is and what we have said love is, and how the more we talk about what love is the more we talk about what it isn’t.

Love is patient, love is kind.[8]

Love is a dog from hell.[9]

Love is like sliding the stem of a flower down a loaded rifle.[10]

All semi-autobiographical Scott McClanahan’s college students want to talk about is whether the author is a good person and whether the narrator is a good person and why books with happy endings aren’t considered literature. Scott McClanahan doesn’t write the last example but English class is English class even in books so even if it isn’t written you can bet someone in English class wants to know.

Books can have happy endings but literature is the history of pain.

In The Sarah Book Scott McClanahan puts on Sarah McClanahan’s underwear and lipstick and I wear the shirts of seven down when I’m alone in the house. Like taking shelter in a carcass, we put ourselves in the memory.

I think about my son learning to walk and myself learning to be upside down and how you can’t live your life upside down but how all we ever do is learn to walk, this way that way and the other way too. All we do is step forward and there’s no such thing as aging and dying if time goes in a circle we will be reborn again differently and we’ll be alive again and we’ll be new. And our pain won’t follow us and we’ll learn it all over again. And we’ll write our books and have our babies and look at life through our looking glass and think what the hell does it mean, and ask the void what it means and the void will say who knows, or why not, or doesn’t matter, or nothing depending on the winnings of our neural lottery. The void will hold us in its arms and say whatever we want.

There’s a monster at the end of this book and it’s you and it’s me. It’s how everything changes.

Thank you Scott McClanahan for the document of doesn’t matter. Because it takes balls to stop saying why not. It takes serious fucking balls to say doesn’t matter and keep living like it does. To seek out a tender mercy, sit with it for a lifetime and produce a blank page.

Let nature do the freezing and frightening and isolating in this world.[11]

We make an offering and take a step back, and whatever meets us halfway is destiny.[12]


[1] Jeanette Winterson, The Passion

[2] Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

[3] Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

[4] Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body

[5] Scott McClanahan, Crapalachia

[6] Wislawa Szymborska, “True Love”

[7] Jeffery Scott, Visions From Within the Mechanism: The Industrial Surrealism of Jeffery Scott

[8] 1 Corinthians 13:4-8

[9] Charles Bukowski

[10] Sam Farahmand, “Patrue mi Patruissimo; or, Philadelphia”

[11] Jack Kerouac, Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947-1954

[12] Mila Jaroniec, Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover


Mila Jaroniec is the author of Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover (Split Lip Press, 2016). She is an editor at drDOCTOR and currently lives in Akron, OH.