The rolling hills of southern Ohio may not seem, at first, a likely place for serious mischief and mayhem, but the fiction of Donald Ray Pollock makes one think the devil himself is tainting the groundwater.
The eighteen linked stories of Pollock’s first book, Knockemstiff, published in 2008 when the author was 53, tornado through this town of the same name—a “holler” of four hundred endangered souls plus a couple of general stores, bars, a church, and a ballfield. The action of Pollock’s second book, the 2011 novel The Devil All the Time, ranges into West Virginia and farther afield along American interstates and back roads, but its heart is still Knockemstiff and its surroundings, where a paper mill sulfurs the air and poor folk live in trailers with open sewage. Residents are related to at least half of everyone else. An OxyContin addict in the story “Blessed” describes the view on his way out of town to a clinic where his wife sells her blood: “The damp, gray sky covered southern Ohio like the skin of a corpse. The landscape was the seemingly endless row of squat metal buildings full of cheap junk for sale: carpet remnants, used furniture, country crafts.”
I understand left-behind towns where agriculture and some rough industry barely support a few of the luckier ones, but my rural Maine upbringing in no way prepared me for the depravity and squalor of Knockemstiff. What’s more, the death-skinned sky and rotten-egg air turn out to be sterile compared to the insides of people’s heads.
The fictional Knockemstiff is based on a real town of the same name, where Pollock grew up. “It was claustrophobic for me,” Pollock said in a 2011 Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross. “I was one of those kids — I was always unsatisfied. I always wanted to be somebody else and somewhere else. And so from a very early age, you know, I was thinking about escaping the holler.”
Indeed most characters in Pollock’s work want to get the hell out; but fear of the unknown and of being alone knock ‘em back. In “Dynamite Hole,” a mentally damaged man has lived on scraps in the woods since escaping the Vietnam draft decades earlier. He still fights his disapproving father in his head, admitting something curious, provincial, and utterly believable: “How could I have told that old man, the way they were drafting and killing boys left and right, that I was afraid of the fighting nearly as much as I was scared of leaving the holler?” In the title story, the clerk at the general store says about an old flame toward whom he still feels tender and who’s about to leave town with a lunkhead named Boo Nesser, “Ever since she started putting out for the boys, she’s been looking for someone to take her away. I wish I could’ve been the one, I really do, but I don’t figure I’ll ever leave the holler, not even for Tina. I’ve lived here all my life, like a toad stool stuck to a rotten log, never even wanting to go into town if I can keep from it.”
Donald Ray Pollock’s parents ran a small general store in Knockemstiff, where he worked as a teenager before dropping out of high school at 17 to work at a meatpacking plant. Not long after that he took off for Florida, where he worked at a nursery for a few months, until his father called to say he could get him a job at the paper mill in Chillicothe, just 13 miles from Knockemstiff. It was a union job with benefits, and Pollock knew he wasn’t likely to find anything better, so he returned. He settled in at the mill, married and divorced twice, had a daughter, filed for bankruptcy, and often drank too much. After about 14 years, he looked around and saw that the other guys who’d been hired at the same time had stacked up some accomplishments — homes and cars and families. “When I got sober [in 1986] I was living in this little, very small apartment above the garage. It was about the size of a hotel room and I’d been living there for about four or five years. I owned a black and white TV that my sister had given me and I had this old ’76 Chevy that had the whole side of it smashed in. And that was it.” He wasn’t jealous of his friends, but he still felt like a failure.
In his 30s, Pollock decided to go to college, earning a degree in English from Ohio University. He didn’t take any writing workshops then, even though the fantasy of being an author sometimes lit up the back of his mind. When Pollock was 45, his father retired from the paper mill. Seeing that leaving the mill job meant the end of his father’s working life unsettled Pollock and reignited his desire to try writing stories: “I just decided I had to try something else. Some other way to spend the rest of my life.”
His self-education in fiction writing began with typing out stories he admired by authors like Hemingway, Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, Richard Yates, and Denis Johnson. In this way, elements of craft became visible. He submitted his pieces to The Journal, the literary magazine published by the English Department of Ohio State University, and connected with Michelle Herman, one of the editors, who eventually convinced Pollock to enroll in the MFA program there.
Erin McGraw, one of his teachers at OSU, noted in a New York Times profile by Charles McGrath that she consistently had a hard time reconciling the “gentle, extremely gracious person” in her classroom with the “dark, violent, often lurid” stories he wrote. Even after winning the 2009 PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship—awarded to “an exceptionally talented fiction writer whose debut work represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise” and carrying a $35,000 prize—Pollock evinces genuine modesty and shyness, both in his soft, twangy voice (lawg for log) and in photos. And Pollock’s successes have only continued: this year, he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship.
Though the back cover of Knockemstiff announces the stories as a “genuine entry into the literature of place,” what Pollock is writing is the literature of extremity. In another New York Times piece, this one profiling the town itself, Pollock says, “Knockemstiff had a reputation for being a really rough place. When I started writing, I took that and cranked it up a few amps.” Though the landmarks of Pollock’s world feel accurate down to the last junk heap, characters are pushed hard into dire circumstances with which they can only cope through extraordinary action. “Gothic hillbilly noir,” is how Pollock once put it, and indeed there is a traceable line of descent in his fiction from the Grimm Brothers’ original gothic tales.
In the acknowledgements to Knockemstiff, Pollock makes clear that the rapists, murders, whores, pedophiles, and junkies in his stories are of his own creation: “My family and our neighbors were good people who never hesitated to help someone in a time of need.” It’s desperate need—for food, companionship, recognition, a fix—that motivates Pollock’s people to both commit and endure gruesome deeds. One of the most tragic is Todd in “Schott’s Bridge.” Todd likes men, and he’s smart enough to know that his only chance at survival is to use the savings his grandmother left him and get out of town. But because “loneliness always got him into trouble quicker than anything,” Todd moves in with a roughneck named Frankie, whose face is disfigured by a scar. Once a month, Frankie spends a few days with an old hag [who]
didn’t give a damn what he looked like, as long as he could make his hog leg stand up. On Sunday evenings, he’d come back to the fish camp bruised with denture marks and loaded down with food she packed for him: dusty jars of preserves, bread sacks of bloody turtle meat, sometimes a soggy pie.
To Todd, Frankie adds, “My God, she’s awful. I might as well stick my dick in that jar of peaches.” The two men pass the time smoking, snorting, and dropping whatever they can get their hands on. A bad batch of “mildewed Lebanese hash” makes their gums bleed; their spit coats the floor with sticky blood. As expected, Frankie eventually steals Todd’s savings, but not before raping him and beating him up. Todd is at fault for trusting whom he shouldn’t and lacking the confidence to care for himself, but he’s otherwise a victim, unlike many other characters in Pollock’s work (the father in “Discipline” who pumps his kid up on steroids until his heart bursts, for example), whom the reader can’t help but feel is severely culpable.
It’s not easy to inject moments of grace into such brutal stories, but Pollock often cracks open a raw beauty I wouldn’t have thought possible, given the subject matter. In “Hair’s Fate,” a young boy getting off on his sister’s doll gets caught in the act by his father:
Trapped in the bright July sunlight pouring in through the open doorway, he was at that point in his fantasy where Gloria was begging him to split her in two with his big, hairy monster; his poor hand couldn’t have stopped if the old man had chopped it off and thrown it to the dogs. With a shudder, he unloaded his juices all over Lucy’s plastic face, the crooked orange mouth, the bobbing blue eyes. Then, like an omen, a black wasp glided down from the rafters and landed gently on top of the doll’s fake blonde hair.
The pace masterfully slows, and our gaze into the bright summer light shifts to an insect, small and natural.
I’ve been focusing on Pollock’s stories because I’m impressed by his skill for repeatedly plunging the reader into convincing, eviscerating worlds. He’s written some of the most arresting opening lines I’ve read in a long time: “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.” Pollock rockets the reader into a highly particular time and place. He never wastes our time circling about the airfield looking for a spot to touch down. We’re immediately there, in the thick of it. Pinned right where Pollock wants us.
Like any art that traffics in the grotesque—I think, for example, of Goya’s Los Caprichos—Pollock’s fiction is not for the faint of heart. While a reader is always helpless in that she can’t influence the outcome of the story, rarely have I felt so hopeless. Pollock’s people appear destined to suffer, as if some rotten, misbegotten force has wrapped them tightly around its finger. In the stories of Flannery O’Connor, to whose fiction Pollock’s is often compared, I’m often baffled by why people do what they do, their mean and murderous impulses, and O’Connor’s own essays suggest that such mysteries are intentional. By contrast, in Pollock’s world, violence is clearly beget and perpetuated by humans: reading Pollock’s fiction makes me admit, with reluctance and discomfort, that people who act badly for reasons beyond their control—poverty, abuse, addiction—are still morally corrupt. Just as when Pollock explains failures in his own life as a result of his own choices—“where I had ended up was my own fault,” he says, adding that if he’d wanted to go to college as a young man his father likely would have helped him, “but that’s not the route I chose”— the author shows us again and again that these down-and-out southern Ohioans make terrible decisions. At the end of “Blessed,” for example, the Oxy addict realizes his son is not deaf and mute—he simply doesn’t talk when his father is around. The father recognizes this moment as one of great potential: he could spare his wife and kid, starting now, by leaving them alone. But then he remembers another bottle in the medicine cabinet, and we know their misery will continue.
Pollock achieves in his two books a powerful moral paradox, one that must undergird any fiction with staying power. He reveals with great care and specificity characters who are both trapped in cycles begun by those who came before and who could, if they really wanted, nudge their lives and those of others toward the better, rather than the worse. In Knockemstiff, there’s no such thing as a victimless crime.
Click here to read a Q&A with Donald Ray Pollock.
Jennifer Acker is the founding editor of The Common, a new print and online journal featuring literature and images with a strong sense of place. She has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and her translations, essays, and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in publications such as Harper’s, The New Inquiry, Ascent, and Ploughshares. Acker was a visiting lecturer at Amherst College in 2011-12 and is currently a Faculty Fellow at New York University Abu Dhabi. She writes a monthly column, “From the 17th Floor,” about her Middle Eastern adventures for The Common Online.
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