BY DAVID DUHR
This book has been chosen as a Great Read.
Author: Donald Ray Pollock
Best ebook deal: Public library
The current Wikipedia entry for Knockemstiff, Ohio labels the community a “ghost town.” While its handful of corporeal residents would dispute the tag, Donald Ray Pollock’s short story collection won’t make you want to drop by and discuss with them the vagaries of collaborative reference guides—even if the writer does claim that his depraved, nightmarish characters are not based on real Knockemstiffers.
Pollock grew up in Knockemstiff, a loose collection of houses and trailers sixty miles south of Columbus, and worked for thirty-two years in a nearby paper mill, spending much of his free time in and out of marriages and rehab centers. In his mid-forties, he earned a Bachelor’s in English, enrolled in (“The”) Ohio State University’s MFA program, and began writing about characters who struggle with issues that Pollock himself admits to having shared addictions, go-nowhere jobs, a sense of rural entrapment, and constant imbroglios with the opposite sex.
Pollock’s grotesque drunks and brawlers, speed freaks and dealers, sexual deviants and rape victims (the animate ones, at least) stumble bleary-eyed through the “holler” that they just cannot escape, carrying with them heavy regrets and bleak futures. “Sometimes it scares me to think I will probably spend the rest of my days wishing I’d blown a rabbit’s guts clear across Harry Frey’s orchard when I was six years old,” one character reflects, while another, looking ahead, thinks, “I’m beginning to believe that anything I do to extend my life is just going to be outweighed by the agony of living it.”
Pollock knows how to grab a reader by the throat with a first line, like he does in “Dynamite Hole”:
I was coming down off the Mitchell Flats with three arrowheads in my pocket and a dead copperhead hung around my neck like an old woman’s scarf when I caught a boy named Truman Mackey fucking his own little sister in the Dynamite Hole.
Or this one, from “Bactine,” one of the standout pieces in this collection:
I’d been staying out around Massieville with my crippled uncle because I was broke and unwanted everywhere else, and I spent most of my days changing his slop bucket and sticking fresh cigarettes in his smoke hole.
Being “unwanted everywhere else” is a feeling that many of these characters share. Jake Lowry, the protagonist in “Dynamite Hole,” thinks back to the time when his younger brother died in WWII: “The old man had always favored Bill over the rest of us … I never could get rid of that feeling that I wasn’t much welcome nowhere in the world.” This same character shows up in a later story, coming out of the woods to trade arrowheads for headcheese sandwiches at the local gas station/food store. Many characters appear in multiple stories, providing more depth to the book, but their recurrence isn’t welcome—it means that they were unable to escape.
Even the ones who do get out of Knockemstiff don’t find greener grass. In “Hair’s Fate,” longhair Daniel is “playing Romeo” with his little sister’s doll, Lucy, when his father catches him in the act. The father cuts the boy’s hair off with a butcher knife, causing Daniel to hitchhike his way out of town with a lonely trucker named Cowboy Roy. The two of them end up at Roy’s trailer home somewhere in Illinois, where, after telling Daniel of his mother’s battle with cancer, Roy produces the wig she wore after chemotherapy. He asks the boy to put on the wig, then says, “Hell, I bet there ain’t many dolls look so pretty.” Daniel takes a swig from a whiskey bottle, and as he hands it back to Roy, he feels “the trucker’s fat, sweaty hand touch his and linger there for a moment. And suddenly, Daniel knew that if he looked in the mirror again, he’d see the wig for what it really was. So instead, he closed his eyes.”
You can take the boy out of Knockemstiff, but you can’t take Knockemstiff out of the boy.
Pollock has an alarming talent for writing teenage boys, a fact most apparent in what is perhaps the book’s strongest piece, “Lard.” Mocked by his friends and his father for having not yet lost his virginity, Duane invents a tryst at the drive-in with an imaginary girl, going so far as to brand himself with two hickeys using a heated spoon. When he tracks down his friends to share with them the details, Duane finds the two boys entertaining Lard McComis, a local fat kid who lets townspeople throw metal darts at his stomach. Lard is the kind of lonely, attention-starved adolescent that this country churns out daily:
He’d wake people up by tapping on their windows, then hold out his darts and plead with them to come out and toss a few. Then he’d step away from their house, unfasten his bibs and let them fall to the ground. His white belly shone as big and bright as the fucking moon. Listening to the mosquitoes buzz in his ears, he might stand there for hours, waiting for someone to walk out and try to throw a bull’s-eye.
Duane has always felt pity for Lard, and so “had always pitched his [darts] underhanded, keeping a secret promise to himself never to break the fat boy’s skin.” It’s one of the book’s most tender moments—a boy who, out of a sense of friendship, will only throw underhand when hurling metal darts at another boy’s gut.
Don’t expect too many of these winning scenes, for defeat isn’t just a state of mind in Knockemstiff—it’s a state of being. These characters are doomed to failure, and the ones cursed with self-awareness know it. The narrator in “Bactine” finds himself in a car with a strange man, huffing cans of the eponymous ointment. Soon after, still sitting in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart, he vows “never to stick my head in a bread sack again.” The narrator and his new friend end up at Krispy Kreme at three in the morning, where the friend eventually suggests that they huff another can. The narrator hems and haws, but knows that the conclusion is foregone: “Because of who we were,” he says, “I already knew what we would do.”
The best these people can hope for is to find something to occupy their minds, to make them forget that they’ll never be able to escape their own lives. Recurring character Porter Watson becomes obsessed with an owl who has built a nest in an abandoned car on the outskirts of town, and the narrator of “Holler” knows why:
Really, he was just trying to latch on to something that would fill up his days so he didn’t have to think about what a fucking mess he had made of everything. It’s the same for most of us; forgetting our lives might be the best we’ll ever do.
This is Knockemstiff. It’s a grim and brutal book, terrifying and heartbreaking all at the same time.
Oh, and it might also be the funniest book you’ll read all year.
Similar reads: This collection draws inevitable comparisons to Winesburg, Ohio. Consider Knockemstiff the ugly little brother to Anderson’s classic. Also, Pollock is often mentioned alongside Pat Conroy (The Prince of Tides, The Great Santini) and Harry Crews (A Feast of Snakes).