Ed McClanahan of Lexington, Kentucky has been plying the writer’s trade for over 50 years. Born in Brooksville, Kentucky in 1932, he grew up there and in nearby Maysville. After graduating from Miami University he attended grad school at the University of Kentucky where he received an M. A. in English in 1958. It was at UK that he began lifelong friendships with fellow writers Wendell Berry, Gurney Norman, Bobbie Ann Mason and James Baker Hall, a group sometimes called the Fab Five.
From 1958 to 1962 McClanahan taught English at Oregon State University. In 1962 he received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University and stayed there until 1972 as a lecturer in creative writing, sharing an office with Stegner. At Stanford he met many other writers, among them Robert Stone, Larry McMurtry and Ken Kesey. Berry, Norman and Hall also made their respective ways to Northern California in the early ‘60s, and with McClanahan became known as the Kentucky Mafia. Most of these writers became associated with Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. McClanahan’s Prankster moniker was Captain Kentucky.
In the 1960s and '70s McClanahan’s work was published prominently in magazines like Playboy, Esquire and Rolling Stone. In 1975, with co-editor Fred Nelson, he published One Lord, One Faith, One Cornbread, a collection of writings from the short-lived Mid-Peninsula Free U. His novel The Natural Man was published in 1983, followed by Famous People I Have Known, A Congress of Wonders, My Vita, If You Will and, in 2008, O The Clear Moment.
His work gained a following and he became known for a distinctive style, mixing classic literature (the Bible, Shakespeare, the Romantic poets), 60s psychedelia, and the American vernacular (think of Ring Lardner’s semi-literate characters and deliberate misspellings). If you read a paragraph that starts, “On the aforementioned night of the transparent purple bunnies,” or hear a character say, “I shoulda been a preacher, I like fried chicken and pussy as much as anybody,” you know you are in the heart of McClanahan country. It’s a mix of fine writing and down home humor that makes the reader laugh, think, wonder and keep coming back for more.
McClanahan’s latest book I Just Hitched in from the Coast is a sort of greatest hits volume comprised of 14 previously published pieces. They fall mainly into two categories, autobiographical gonzojournalistic pieces like “The Day the Lampshades Breathed,” “Ken Kesey, Jean Genet, the Revolution et Moi” and “Drowning in the Land of Sky-Blue Waters,” and whole-cloth fiction pieces such as “Juanita and the Frog Prince,” “A Congress of Wonders” and “Finch’s Song.”
In a previous Literary Kicks article, I stated a preference for the former works, saying that the “memoir as short story” was McClanahan’s greatest strength. I Just Hitched In has given me reason to revise that opinion. The gonzojournalistic pieces are still very good and very funny. (McClanahan and Hunter Thompson come from the same neck of the woods, and walk some of the same literary ground, though they do it with contrasting personas—Thompson’s outrageous and in-your-face, McClanahan’s diffident and self-effacing. Where Thompson stomps the terra, McClanahan is more likely to give it the old soft shoe.) But in this book I especially enjoyed the straight fiction. One character in particular, Philander Cosmo Rexroat (sometimes Rev., sometimes Dr.), brightens three of the stories. He’s a character who could have wandered out of the pages of Twain, a con man in the tradition of the Huck Finn’s Duke and Dauphin, marked by “boundless faith in the credulity of his fellowman.” I would love to see McClanahan write more Rexroat stories and devote a book to them. Rexroat allows him to indulge a carnival barker style not so far removed from his natural predilection.
Here’s Rev. Rexroat in “Juanita and the Frog Prince,” exhorting his young acolytes:
“And now my sons, let us take sweet counsel together. Why do the heathen rage, you ask. I’ll tell you why, my lads. Because the way of the transgressor is hard! Because the serpent abideth in the garden! Because the king of terrors stalks the Earth, while Hell enlarges itself daily! Yea, verily, I have seen all Israel scattered upon the hills, as sheep that have not a shepherd, and doubtless there are those among them that wouldn’t pay a nickel to see a pissant eat a bale of hay! But we shall shepherd them, Luther my boy! Together, you and I shall shall drive the wolf from the fold and teach the children of Israel that above all things, the Lord loveth a cheerful giver!”
The plot of this story is convoluted. It’s a humorous tale, spun out at some length, in the best Twain or Washington Irving fashion, a worthy companion to “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” or “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” For a more modern comparison, Richard Brautigan comes to mind, though McClanahan is more erudite. His similes are likely to employ obscure or oblique literary references. “A Congress of Wonders” continues in this vein. The trip is enjoyable and the eventual destination makes the journey worthwhile. Rexroat spiels on, likeable in spite of his larcenous instincts, and the backwoods and small town folk of the Bible and Bourbon Belt fall under his spell to varying degrees. This one ends with a nice pulling back and framing of the story’s setting, a poignant reminder of real world troubles outside of this amusing sideshow.
These stories are a time trip as well, taking us back to the 1930s and ‘40s, with references to pop culture icons of the time—Betty Grable, Dorothy Lamour, Shirley Temple, and other people, events and products. I can’t help but wonder how younger readers will respond to this. Some may be put off by the dated references, while other are likely to be intrigued and keep their laptops, Droids or iPads handy.
Among the autobiographical pieces, my favorite is “Ken Kesey, Jean Genet, the Revolution et Moi.” The action takes place in Palo Alto in 1970, and references Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic. Kesey has long since repaired to his Oregon farm, but is passing through on a visit that happens to coincide with a Black Panther fundraiser featuring Genet. The events that transpire at the hosting Stanford professor’s house on a sunswept California afternoon are very funny, but there’s also a moral involved. This piece, along with others in the book, makes a nice start on The Wit and Wisdom of Ken Kesey. (For example, this from “Furthurmore”: “Hallucinations are shy. But if you entertain them they’ll bring all their friends, and then they’re hard to get shut of.”)
“Eschew higgledy-piggledy,” McClanahan advises, in introducing this volume, which means he wants us to read the whole book in order. I won’t argue. It is arranged with a purpose and the fiction and memoir play off of each other nicely. But, in truth, anyone inclined to open the book at random will not be disappointed. The whole may be greater than the sum of the parts, but the parts are all in fine condition.