And so there he is, holding court among a group of five-maybe-six, not so much pulling attention from the guest of honor as causing a slight deviation in plan.
Ed McClanahan is a tall, thin man, with shocks of finger-length white hair that wrap his otherwise balding head in the universal uniform of the Great Unwashed. He is difficult to miss. He is also gregarious, perhaps with a nod to the glass of red wine in his hand, a good listener with a concern for cordiality and the genuine interest of a writer who makes people he’s known into characters you read.
Those who want to know him but only know of him want now, it appears, to talk to him. I am basically waiting in line, trying not to misjudge the social rule of conversation-interrupting: Move quickly and with confidence, and don’t hover too long without acknowledging your interruption. We have met twice before — the first time, after touring mountaintop-removal mining operations in eastern Kentucky, McClanahan produced a flagon of sharp bourbon to lube conversation about that particular social injustice that carried the night into morning. Without a doubt, whatever he worships will look kindly upon that invincible act.
We had spoken on the phone earlier in the day, a 45-minute conversation that went all over the place — from McClanahan’s upcoming tour, which brings him to Louisville for a reading* before flying him to Utah (where he has a “weird little constituency”) and various key points along the West Coast, to classic literature (he’s an avowed Dickens fan) and whether it’s too early to be despondent about America (maybe).
Now we’re in the downstairs gallery of 21c Museum Hotel, where there is a display of photographs by James Baker Hall, who is both a superb photographer uncannily able to capture people at their most revealing and a dear old friend of McClanahan. Hall is sitting small in a chair, clutching a copy of “O the Clear Moment,” McClanahan’s latest, which the author refers to — with signature humor — as an “implied autobiography.” It is a beautiful little hardcover with original jacket art by Ralph Steadman, the famous foil for Hunter S. Thompson.
By the time I make my interruption, McClanahan and the others are laughing at a man on his knees before them, waving his arms and heaping worship on Hall with feigned reverence. I smile and nod, smile and nod. Ah, timing.
The book is a series of autobiographical stories that were either unpublished, had short runs in obscure journals or, in one case, appeared as a chapbook. Each produces a “clear moment” — the title phrase is borrowed from the poet Robert Graves — and most are youthful revelations and epiphanies, the drudging assailment of naivety that follows alongside a careful dissection of McClanahan’s bucolic America, where hitchhiking was more romantic than criminal, and small, backcountry towns still had vibrant local economies.
McClanahan began compiling “O the Clear Moment” during a break from work on his forthcoming novel, “The Return of the Son of Needmore,” a sequel to his only novel, “The Natural.”
“I got to thinking about these odds and ends I had around that had not ever been put together in book form, and then there was this one idea I had for a story about an old high-school girlfriend of mine, or wannabe girlfriend I should say, and this guy who was a friend of mine but who also stole away with the girl,” he says. “I had been thinking about that story for years and wanting to write it, and I thought, ‘If I write that story and put it together with some of these other odds and ends that I have around … then, when I expire, maybe somebody will come across this stuff and it’ll be a nice little posthumous book.”
He laughs — a hearty, shoulder-rolling sound that betrays his country-boy roots. McClanahan was born in Brooksville, Ky., in 1932, and it’s never too far away from him (he lives in Lexington). He doesn’t write polemic, he says, but instead taps his own experiences, using his folksy-yet-erudite prose to unfurl, for instance, the time he sought revenge on a high-school prankster who egged him (yes, egged him) in front of girls he’d been pursuing (the story “Great Moments in Sports”).
As he matured, McClanahan sought expansion. He spent time on the West Coast, teaching at Oregon State University, Stanford and the University of Montana. He ran with the Merry Pranksters, practiced New Journalism a la Tom Wolfe and used gigs with Playboy, Esquire and Rolling Stone to help pay the bills. He was part of a social and political movement that looked like it was going somewhere — until, almost suddenly, it just wasn’t anymore.
That America is gone, of course, relegated to art and replaced with a fast-moving country fighting two wars abroad and nursing a crippled economy at home. Talking about it makes McClanahan a little wistful; as he explains it, he’s not altogether hopeless about the future, just glad he won’t be seeing too much of it.
“In 1954, I took off on that trip to California (as described in “Fondelle, or the Whore with a Heart of Gold”), and in many respects, what happened to me on that trip was really fairly mundane, it wasn’t anything all that thrilling or anything from the perspective of what’s possible now. I didn’t get on a spaceship. But it seems like, to have an adventure like that, and to feel that you’re on an adventure, it seems like it’s just almost impossible nowadays for young people. There is no mystery left, somehow. It’s all too fucking accessible. Not only do we know it all, but we know more than all of it.”
“Gag me with a spoon, as they say.”
I’ve just asked McClanahan to compare the Rockwell version of America in his stories with what we have today.
“What makes you gag?” I ask.
“The way things are now. The rise of this horrid woman, this Palin woman — God, it’s just astonishing. Where did she come from? It’s like the witch of the east or something — west, rather.”
“She was awfully nasty in her speech (at the Republican National Convention) last night, I thought. Quite condescending.”
“I’ll say. Boy.”
“I take it you’re following the presidential campaign,” I say.
“I’m trying not to. It’s following me. It’s everywhere! It’s everywhere!”
“What are your thoughts?”
“I think we’ve got a terrible problem all of a sudden. It’s impossible to say at this moment — I think it’s impossible to say — how this is going to go because I think she has really, literally scared a lot of people. A lot. A lot of people on my side almost literally got scared away from voting for the last couple of election cycles because it just seemed so hopeless somehow, even though the elections were close. Somehow or another, it seemed that no matter how close the vote was, they had it won, had it in their pocket. This time, you can’t tell. I hope that people are as repelled by her as I am — and by McCain, by association — that they’ll act accordingly and vote accordingly.”
*Saturday, Sept. 13 at St. Francis of Assisi (1960 Bardstown Road, 456-6394) at noon.