This month, MTV premiered its newest reality show, Buckwild, which is being widely touted as the “redneck Jersey Shore” — with a little bit of Jackass thrown in there for good measure. Set in West Virginia (whose senator Joe Manchin has fought against the show), Buckwild follows the exploits of six girls and three boys growing up in a small town in Appalachia, doing their best to get into trouble. Here’s what we think: yawn. If you feel the urge to watch this silly show, we have a better idea for you — pick up one of these books. Our reading list will give you a dose of Appalachian culture, hillbilly antics and redneck voyeurism, and you won’t have to feel badly about it after.
Crapalachia: A Biography of a Place, Scott McClanahan
McClanahan’s frenetic account of life growing up in rural West Virginia practically seethes with place, with empathy, with humor and violence and the boringness/incredibleness of being young. Split into very short stories populated by weirdly lovable characters, this is redneck poetry that’s not redneck at all. Any one of McClanahan’s dam-bursting sentences will make anything those Buckwild kids say sound dull as ditchwater. Forthcoming from Two Dollar Radio.
River of Earth, James Still
If you’re looking for the classic novel of the genre, look no further. Still, who has been widely dubbed the “Dean of Appalachian literature,” first published this novel back in 1940, and it is a beautiful work, a harrowing story of poverty, loss, and life in the hills of eastern Kentucky.
The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls
Here’s a little reality for you — Jeannette Walls’s memoir of abuse, struggle and family in a West Virginia mining town. Walls will take you through more drama and dysfunction than any crop of MTV teenagers could, but with a serious kick and a thoughtful, courageous hand.
Donnybrook, Frank Bill
Now, this one is set in Southern Indiana, but if what you’re looking for in Buckwild is bar fights between drunk and mighty colorful rednecks, and don’t mind coupling that with an emotional gut-punch for yourself, you won’t do any better than Frank Bill’s forthcoming novel. The body count is likely to be somewhat higher, though.
The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, Breece D’J Pancake
Breece D’J Pancake lived in West Virginia all his life. He went to college there, he taught English in military schools there, he got his MFA there — and then he died there, at the too-young age of 26, from a self-inflicted shotgun wound on Palm Sunday in 1979. These twelve arresting stories were published posthumously, and are remarkable evocations of place, despair, and unsentimental empathy. We only wish there were more.
Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia, ed. Sandra L. Ballard and Patricia L. Hudson
The writers in this collection, editors Sandra L. Ballard and Patricia L. Hudson write, “have been relegated to the fringes of the American literary community, largely because their ‘place’ — Appalachia — continues to be viewed as outside the American mainstream.” Some more than others — this excellent collection boasts the likes of Dorothy Allison, Annie Dillard, Nikki Giovanni, Barbara Kingsolver, Sharyn McCrumb, and Lee Smith. And hey, there are six girls to three guys in Buckwild, after all.
Stories I Ain’t Told Nobody Yet, Jo Carson
If what you’re looking for is voice through and through, check out Jo Carson’s poems, monologues and dialogues of Appalachia that she describes as “distillations.” We reckon they’re a bit more eloquent than anything you’ll see on MTV.
Grundish and Askew, Lance Carbuncle
If you’re thinking a little less poetry and a little more sheer fun, and you have a high tolerance for gross-out humor (which, you’re thinking of watching an MTV reality show, so you must), you may be interested in this absurdist tale of two white trash best friends on a dumb-ass mission.
The Unquiet Earth, Denise Giardina
Fighting nature, the federal government, and sometimes each other, the denizens of this West Virginia mining town have it rough. Politics, star-crossed love affairs, rebels, hillbillies and the deep, choking dark of the mines, all based on historical events — a better drama you won’t find.
Rocket Boys, Homer Hickam, Jr.
Want to see teenage boys get up to something a little more impressive than getting drunk and driving their dad’s truck into a ditch? Hickam’s memoir of coming of age in a West Virginia coal town in the 60s, obsessed with the stars, is one of our favorites. If you’re really feeling lazy, just go watch October Sky. It’s still light years better than Buckwild.