Grady Harp, April 10, 2008
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The Bruised, Vulnerable, Ill-Starred Inhabitants of Knockemstiff, Ohio
Donald Ray Pollock is talented. His style of writing is one that feels like spontaneous impressions of a tribal people from which he takes the reader by the collar and spins wild tales, all the while making us believe each of his weirdly comic/tragic characters actually exists. Pollock's vantage is not unlike the gopher who happens to burrow up into a strange neighborhood, glances about is total disbelief, then scurries back down in wonder about the current state of the world: the mound he leaves behind is this highly entertaining book.
Though Knockemstiff is an actual place in the remnants of a once settled and civilized Ohio, Pollock uses the place as the matrix from which he devises some of the strangest stories in literature. Though the book is a collection of short stories, Pollock ties some of the characters together in different stories giving the reader the idea that the number of creatures who populate this degenerate town are so few that they must serve as actors more than once. These people are often disabled by drugs, alcohol, physical abnormalities, mental derangements, or the products of barely together couplings that mutually drive partners into bizarre behaviors.
Pollock can create suggestive sexual scenes only to remind the reader with the use of brittle descriptions that the surroundings are peppered with detritus, enough to keep the lights on. Each of the aimlessly unhappy folks we encounter retains an edge of humor (despite some impressively dour physical attributes) and that is in the end what keeps the reader engaged. To retain interest in these folks through eighteen varied (but not dissimilar) stories Pollock is forced to occasionally rely on fantasy episodes out of town, but he deftly keeps his characters in the dirt/mud/snow of Knockemstiff in a manner that keeps the thwarted dreams grounded.
Pollock uses a language that is rich and colorful, and even while his characters seem to be disengaged from a happy life, he manages to take some flights into the beauty of nature - yes, even in Knockemstiff, Ohio the land can be beautiful. The stories he has written can be read quickly, but the metaphors each carry need some time to absorb. There is a little of each of us somewhere in Knockemstiff, whether we admit it or not. For a first novel, this is a winner! Daniel Ray Pollock IS talented.