Raised in Knockemstiff, Ohio, Donald Ray Pollock worked at the local paper mill, just like his father and grandfather before him. However, at forty-five he picked up a pen and began to write, at fifty enrolled in an English programme at Ohio State University and had a collection of short stories snaffled up by Doubleday before he finished his studies. As bizarre as it is violent, Knockemstiff introduced the literary world to small town Southern Ohio populated by every drunk, deviant and freak you would care to imagine.
But somehow, amidst the drugs and fighting and perversion, Pollock managed to create characters interesting beyond black curiosity, taking up the mantle of Southern greats such as William Gay and Flannery O’Connor in his ability to induce sympathy or at least complicate the antipathy his characters will garner. This style was developed (and potentially mastered) with Devil All The Time, his debut novel which cast the reader into world in which the membrane between reality and nightmare is leaky at best, with blood sacrifice and serial killer couples complicating an already bleak coming-of-age tale.
While Donald Ray Pollock’s latest novel, The Heavenly Table, takes us back to the 1917, it’s still rooted in the area of America he is making his own. The narrative is snappy and unsettled, the short chapters jumping between various locations and points of view, slowly drawing inwards in an inescapable ring which corrals the characters into the inevitable finale at the town of Meade. We have Ellsworth Fiddler, a swindled farmer trying to save face, Jasper Cone, a painfully afflicted sanitation inspector, Lieutenant Bovard, a jilted husband turned homoerotic (would be) war hero, and finally the luckless Jewett brothers, Cane, Cob and Chimney, who grow tired of the poor life and turn to robbing banks as a path to salvation.
With the graphic violence, crude sex and odd scatological humour, this appears to be more or less Pollock’s odd twist on the standard Western fare. Where things get interesting is that the Jewetts are inspired by a cheap dime novel, The Life and Times of Bloody Bill Bucket. Every cliche can therefore be read as a secondhand gesture, the Jewetts wearing Bloody Bill’s persona like a tacky fancy dress costume, hoping some of his magic (ie. his fictional bravado, success, imperiousness to pain/failure/death) might rub off on them. Furthermore, as their ‘spree’ gains traction so does the media’s reaction, with stories of ‘Jewett’ crimes emanating from newspapers in other areas and states, despite the brothers never having been there.
So not only are the boys distorting fiction into reality, but their reality is distorting into fiction, leaving them having to live up to the magnificent/terrifying tales on both ends. And while it’s apparent the trio are not well-equipped for such pressures, they sure give it their (quite literal) best shot, working on the logic of faking it ’til you make it:
‘Leaning over the horn of his saddle, Chimney spat and then said, “Well, I don’t know who those ol’ boys are back there, but I don’t figure they can shoot any better than we can.”
“Maybe, but there must be fifteen of them in that pack.”
“So?” Chimney said. “That many don’t even amount to one box of shells.”‘
Here are some dust-strewn, blood-spattered songs to listen to as you read.
1) Devil Town – Bright Eyes
2) Blood Red Sentimental Blues – Cotton Jones
3) Bury Me in the Garden – Tyler Butler and his Handsome Friends
4) Tom Justice, The Choir Boy Robber, Apprehended at Ace Hardware in Libertyville, IL – Casiotone For The Painfully Alone
5) Murderous Joy – Carter Tanton
6) Christ Jesus – Deer Tick
7) You Should’ve Seen the Other Guy – Nathaniel Rateliff
8) Buriedfed – Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson
9) Fire & Fast Bullets – Blitzen Trapper
10) Brother’s Blood – Kevin Devine
11) I Dreamt of My Brother Dying – Oscar Lush
12) Drunk and On a Star – Kevin Morby
13) Weather of a Killing Kind – The Tallest Man on Earth
14) Whore – Low
15) Liars – Gregory Alan Isakov and the Colorado Symphony
16) Closer to Heaven – Pink Mountaintops
17) Killer – Samantha Crain
The Heavenly Table is out now via Harvill Secker and Doubleday. You can read about Donald Ray Pollock’s other works on the Knopf Doubleday website.