Reviewed by Gerry Donaghy
Donald Ray Pollock's debut collection of short stories, Knockemstiff, opens with the line "My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old," setting the stage for the intense, gritty prose styling that fills these 200-plus pages. If the thought of reading how this lesson in pugilism goes down makes you a little uncomfortable, don't even bother to pick up this book.
The stories in Knockemstiff depict some of the most heartbreakingly original characters and situations of recent memory: the father who juices his son with Mexican steroids in an attempt to relive his failed glory days as a competitive bodybuilder; the hapless woman compelled to drive her aunt around town in search of men to bed; and the woman who roams the streets and forces people to eat the supply of fish sticks that she keeps in her purse. Have I mentioned the endless parade of speed-dealing barmaids, horribly scarred psychopaths, and Bactine-huffing losers?
Life for the characters in these stories is nasty, brutish, and tragically long. They toil at thankless jobs and find little to look forward to once they get home. The overriding themes surrounding these characters are desperation, boredom, and resignation. It's not that they don't know a world outside their rural confines; they have no idea how to live anywhere else. The few characters who manage to take those tentative steps out of town usually wind up regretting it, discovering a world that is just as brutal as the one they left, yet unfamiliar and disorienting.
Pollock's writing doesn't just hook you; he grabs you by the throat. To reach for an easy comparison, imagine if Chuck Palahniuk and Flannery O'Connor had a bastard child, read Davis Grubb and Hubert Selby, Jr., to him in his crib, and let him read Irvine Welsh and Harry Crews while he was growing up (yes, that's a lot of references, but each of these writers popped into my head while reading this book). The writing in Knockemstiff is crisp and vivid with Pollock confronting readers' sense of propriety by unveiling characters and situations that are at once grotesque and sympathetic.
While Pollock may not lend his down-and-out characters much eloquence, he imbues them with a remarkable dignity, extracting from the reader both a near voyeuristic thrill and a surprising sense of guilt. The characters endure indescribable poverty and geographical isolation that serves to create and exacerbate these amazing acts of depravity, exposing readers to a very dark slice of Americana, like Norman Rockwell painting Guernica. What makes these stories so disturbing is that while Knockemstiff is fiction, the bleak reality is not in the slightest way improbable. Without romanticizing their plights, Pollock nonetheless captures the innate humanity of many of these misfits.
Knockemstiff is not an easy book to recommend. It contains some of the finest writing I've come across in a very long time, but there are some genuinely shocking scenes that are rendered quite graphically. However, these aren't cheap thrills. Pollock is giving voice to an underrepresented segment of Americans. If you're tired of reading the plights of overprivileged Manhattanites, Knockemstiff is the perfect pill. These stories are the literary equivalent of the LOVE/HATE tattoos on Robert Mitchum's knuckles: terrifying yet fascinating.
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