Monday, June 13, 2016

KNOCKEMSTIFF by Donald Ray Pollock...reposting 5-star 2010 review

Donald Ray Pollock

Anchor Books
$16.95 trade paper, $5.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: In this unforgettable work of fiction, Donald Ray Pollock peers into the soul of a tough Midwestern American town to reveal the sad, stunted but resilient lives of its residents. Knockemstiff is a genuine entry into the literature of place.Spanning a period from the mid-sixties to the late nineties, the linked stories that comprise Knockemstiff feature a cast of recurring characters who are irresistibly, undeniably real. A father pumps his son full of steroids so he can vicariously relive his days as a perpetual runner-up body builder. A psychotic rural recluse comes upon two siblings committing incest and feels compelled to take action. Donald Ray Pollock presents his characters and the sordid goings-on with a stern intelligence, a bracing absence of value judgments, and a refreshingly dark sense of bottom-dog humor.

My Review: Published in 2008, this collection of eighteen interwoven stories about the lives of the men and women and children caught in rural poverty is the first work by Donald Ray Pollock. He lived in Knockemstiff, a real, honest-to-goodness place. He escaped, sort of, by working for thirty years in a nearby town's papermill.

I don't remember who introduced me to the term “hillbilly noir.” Authors like Bonnie Jo Campbell of American Salvage fame as well as Pollock fall into this category of writers who mine the vein of American underclass misery worked so brilliantly by John Steinbeck and Erskine Caldwell. Noir it certainly is, thematically and in its laconic, almost kabuki play-like, emphasis on grotesque surfaces, implying that every action and every gesture is born out of unfathomable darkness and unbearable pain. The Publishers Weekly review of this collection compares Pollock's work to Winesburg, Ohio. I agree, from a structural point of view, but Sherwood Anderson's grim stories are the comedy stylings of P.G. Wodehouse compared to this collection.

Pollock is brilliantly successful at portraying Scratch that.

Donald Ray Pollock is brilliant.

I've been bitch-slapped by this writer's ten-inch dick of the imagination. The stories treated me the way those hillbillies treated Ned Beatty in Deliverance. No part of my brain will ever again be clean and unviolated.

There is one story in this collection that, in my humble (!) opinion, doesn't measure up and doesn't belong: “I Start Over,” about a trip through the Dairy Queen drive-through, would be the star turn of any other writer's collection of stories, but here it merely fills up page count and takes the book over 200pp. Left out, no one would notice or feel a lack.

There are two stand-out stories for me, two that should be in high-school literature anthologies and passed from reader to reader with whispered injunctions just to read it, read it: “Schott's Bridge” is the bleak and horrifying story of a young gay man and his fate in this grim, grim world; and “Bactine,” the shortest story in the collection, a quick hit of despair and decline, as two young men escape the present into a futureless fog. They are, in simplest terms, heart-stopping.

But the story that made me hurt the most, though it's not the finest structurally or stylistically, was “Knockemstiff.” Two strangers in a Cadillac convertible, husband and wife, pull into Maude's store for gas, and for the wife to take photos of the “Welcome to Knockemstiff” sign. The husband makes small talk with the clerk, commenting that “[i]t's hard to believe there's people that poor living in this country.” Their condescending words and actions are invisible to them. It's simply inconceivable to these privileged people that others are not, well, envious but impressed by them. They're blind to their cruelty.

I am that California goon, insensitive lout that he is. I've driven through countless places like Knockemstiff in my expensive car, looked out my window, and thought, “No way. This is a movie set. No one lives here, lives like this.” I've stopped for gas, bought a bag of chips, made inconsequential chat with the clerk, wondering the while how he drags himself out of bed to face another day in that kind of place.

I don't want to believe it's true, you see, and I don't like to think that it's not the subject of outrage and outreach and action.

It isn't. Donald Ray Pollock is their voice, these people in the hollers, shouting at us to look, to look, to see the cost of indifference. He's singing an old song. He's doing it well. He's making art, and seducing the susceptible into seeing the invisible, the ignored, the ignoble and unrefined. His artistry is superior. His eye is unerring. His ear is emotional sonar.

Donald Ray Pollock is brilliant.

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