Virginia-based author and film-maker Scott McClanahan is a trend-bucker: prolific but consistently well-reviewed, stylistic yet free from the affectations or the necessary pretences of a single confining genre. His latest novel, Hill William, a product of the always-excellent and ever-surprising (or outraging, depending on exactly who you ask) New York publisher Tyrant Books, is testament to and a realisation of his talent – a polaroid of time and place, both being all-consuming and inescapable. And, in the end, also entirely irretrievable as they once were.
How I Finally Became Cool
I just wanted to be cool. Derrick was a lot older than I was (like fifteen), and I thought he was the coolest. I was nine. He was always shooting guns, or sighting in his bow, or chewing tobacco, or talking about how he was going to kick some guy’s ass. I was six years younger and I always followed him around. One day he asked me to come and play Atari Pitfall with him. It wasn’t fifteen minutes into being there that he disappeared into his Mom and Dad’s bedroom. It seemed like he was gone for a long time, but I just kept playing and didn’t really think anything about it until I got killed or something.
I heard Derrick saying, “Hey. Come back here. I want to show you something.”
I got up and walked down the hallway into his folk’s bedroom where he was standing over a metal filing cabinet beside his Dad’s bed. I couldn’t believe I was getting to hang out with one of the older guys.
It was open and he said, “Let me show you.”
He reached into the filing cabinet, full of bills, and pulled out something from way in the back. I walked over to the metal filing cabinet to see what it was and I saw Derrick holding this Reader’s Digest size magazine in his hands.
It was this 1970s style dirty book that didn’t even have any pictures in it really but just these drawings of people having sex and these little dirty stories to go along with them.
The drawings were the kind of drawings they have in the 1973 edition of The Joy of Sex where the men all have hairy chests and bushy beards, and the women have bushy-well. We sat down on the bed and Derrick flipped through all of the pictures of dirty parts and told me about the stories. I was shocked, looking at the drawings of bare breasts and penises because I was still the kind of kid who thought babies came from French kissing, and French kissing was just sticking out the tip of your tongue and touching it against the tip of another person’s tongue.
Tongue, tip, a baby.
Derrick was flipping through the pages of the dirty book and saying, “Those are her tits. You see those, man?”
Then he said another word and I thought, “How do you spell that?”
He kept flipping through the drawings and the stories and I could see the drawings and stories and words from the stories.
At last I thought, “Ah, so that’s how you spell that.”
It was a whole new world for me. But then his dad, Frank, pulled up outside in his truck, and Derrick put away the dirty book.
Derrick started showing me things to make me cool. One night we went out in his truck, spotlighting for deer. He wasn’t old enough to drive but he drove. One day I helped him build a tree stand in the woods and put out a salt lick for some deer.
Weeks later, when nobody was at home, Derrick called me back into the bedroom because he had something else to show me. It was this magazine full of dirty stories and drawings, and ads for phone sex numbers. On the cover was a woman in her bra and panties, talking to someone on the phone. I sat down beside Derrick on the bed as he flipped through the drawings and stories, and he told me what they were. He flipped to a drawing of a woman touching herself.
He flipped to a drawing of a woman he said was giving “oral sex.”
He flipped to a bunch of phone sex ads in the back, with a woman who didn’t have any top on, and then to an ad of two women kissing and touching each other.
I thought, “Women can have sex with each other? This is amazing. Women can have sex with each other? What an amazing world.”
Derrick started doing something. He started pulling his greasy blue jeans down over his waist and he started groaning.
At first I didn’t know what he was doing, but I thought that if I changed the subject maybe he would stop.
So I stood up, listening to him groaning, and I said something stupid like, “When did your Mom get this bed spread? It’s a really nice bedspread. If I had to describe this bedspread in two words I would describe it like this: ‘kick ass.’”
But he just kept doing it and giving me the commentary as he went along. “Hey don’t leave. I want to show you.”
He obviously didn’t want to talk about bedspreads.
I realized he wasn’t going to stop. I started walking to the other end of the room. He started doing it faster and sounding all out of breath.
“Hold on,” he shouted after me.
I kept walking out of the room and then walked all of the way home trying to get the pictures out of my head.
A month later I was back in that bedroom all alone with Derrick and we were going through his Dad’s magazines. These weren’t just a bunch of stupid magazines full of stupid drawings, and dirty stories, and ads. These were glossy magazines I’d never seen before, full of shiny pictures of women with fake blonde hair, big breasts (fake too –Derrick said) and little tiny waists.
I sat down beside Derrick and he flipped through all of the glossy pictures. He flipped to pictures of women having sex with two men, a couple having sex, one man having sex with three women. I couldn’t even get a girlfriend, let alone get three women to have sex with me.
Then he asked me, “I want you to do something for me.”
I told him no and went into the other room. I walked over to the door and looked at all the things on the Anger wall like deer antlers and squirrel tails and fake paintings hillbillies always get for a couple of dollars at Dollar General. Then I walked back into the living room and back to the bedroom. t was time to make a decision.
Derrick was still going through the magazines on the bed, and so I said to him all nervous, “Ok. That thing you asked me about?”
My voice quivered and shook, “That thing you asked about earlier?”
I said, “I will.”
I told him he had to do it to me too because I didn’t want to get taken advantage of.
I was in 4th grade now. I needed to start looking out for myself.
A minute later I got down on my knees on this ratty old carpet. He pulled down his pants and all I could see was red.
I only did it for a second and made all kinds of screwy faces.
Then I went “uggghhh” and stood up.
“It tastes funny,” I said.
He looked confused like I was a big disappointment, and then he went down on his knees too. I pulled down my little red shorts and my penis looked so tiny compared to his, like a tiny vanilla tootsie roll. But then he did the same thing for a couple of seconds to me before he pulled away. I said, “It tastes funny, doesn’t it? I told you it tastes funny but you wouldn’t listen to me.”
He didn’t say anything and I didn’t say anything either.
I just stood there with my pants pulled down and smiled.
Then I raised my arms high into the air like a great champion and at last I was laughing. I laughed a loud laugh and knew I knew something that none of the other kids knew. I laughed a loud laugh because I had finally been born.