Tuesday, 18 May 2010


Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock

One Man's Opinion

“When you first heard him talking about it, you’d figure he was batshit crazy, but really he was just trying to latch onto something that would fill up his days so he didn’t have to think about what a fucking mess he’d made of everything. It’s the same for most of us; forgetting our lives might be the best we’ll ever do.”

On my bookshelves, higgledy-piggledy as they are, Raymond Carver’s ‘No Heroics Please’ has been living next to Tristan Egolf’s ‘Lord Of The Barnyard’. At first sight, it would be difficult to see a connection. Now I’ve finished Donald Ray Pollock’s ‘Knockemstiff’ I realise there’s been a reason for it all along – ‘Knockemstiff’ can nestle in between them and, almost impossible to believe as it is, there are times when Pollock’s work knocks the others’ socks off.

If I put up my Nick Cave books, albums and CD’s I’ll have created a section worthy of its own label. ‘On The Rails Of Pain And Suffering’ I think I’ll call it.

A few months ago a friend of mine gave me my copy.

I think I loved it straight away.

Its production values make it the classiest looking book I own (excluding some old pulp artwork standards, perhaps). The publishers, Harvill Secker, must have put it together as a labour of love and clearly understood what they were dealing with. Now I’ve been inside, I can see why.

It even feels special, I kid you not.

Turns out it wasn’t just any old book I’d been given. More of a minor miracle.

Why is it so good and why might Carver, Egolf and Cave be suitable bedfellows?

Carver, of course, is held by many to be amongst the greatest exponents of the short story art. I’m not well-read enough or deep enough to be able to make such claims, but in my experience I’d have to put him right up there. It’s the way he offers snapshots into people’s lives, moments or short passages of time that pack a whole lifetime into a few pages or turn a life on its head within the blink of an eye. Even the most trivial of actions in his work give us enormous wedges of information. His stories are beautiful things to behold.

So are Pollock’s. He has that superb efficiency about him as he leads us through tale after tale set in the areas surrounding the town ‘Knockemstiff’. He goes further than just revealing the lives of the characters however - we get a sense of their entire ancestry and of the history of the land. And it's 'tight as a mouse's ear'.
Carver meets the devil? Carver wins, TKO. Pollock meets Carver - Carver ends up on the seat of his pants - didn't see it coming; a lot of folk lost their bets that night.

Egolf? 'Barnyard' deals with roughness and depravity beautifully, blood, guts and all. Pollock's the same, only he can have your toes curling with only a few strokes of his pen.
Cave? A master of weaving stories, of allowing his characters to reveal their innermost turmoil and frailties. Ditto Pollock.

Knockemstiff is a real town. Donald Ray grew up around those parts. It’s not a classy place. More of a falling on its arse, in the doldrums, no hope, backwater of a town where there’s nothing much to do and nobody much to do it with. You get a sense of that even before you start reading. It’s the first book I’ve read with a map in it that hasn’t been for my children in a long time, possibly since I was a kid. The map works as it centres you immediately in place. The rest of it unfolds as the tales of its inhabitants are told, overlap and retrace each other’s steps to form layer upon layer of despair.

Don’t expect an easy ride if you feel like going along. You’ll meet violent men, glue-sniffers, speed-freaks, mescaline lovers, iron-pumpers, angel-dusters, murderers, draft-dodgers, those on the pull, trailer-trash, the homeless, the good, the fat and the ugly. They play with themselves and each other right in front of you, exposing themselves in a way that characters so rarely do on the page.

You can smell them and their fish sticks, the shit and the piss and the blood. You get to see the flakes of dead skin and the dandruff and taste the bologna on bread. You practically feel oppressed by the Ohio sky. It stinks and it hurts and it’s tough. It’s the way life is.

“I closed my eyes and sank deeper and deeper into that lonely world known only to those who sleep in abandoned vehicles.”

Here the people are all too aware of their situation. Their stories are told in such a matter of fact way that before you know it, the craziest kinds of shit are completely normal. Nobody is judged for their actions, it’s just the way things are. More often than not, the consequences they reap don’t seem fair as they collect heartbreak like the women collect men and the men collect women.

It should be bleak. It should be an impossible read working through from one story to another, but it’s utterly engrossing.

I didn’t manage to read more than two or three at a sitting. Each story has such gravity and power that it needs to be digested long after the book is closed. Perhaps they can be compared to rich chocolates or desserts – a couple at a time are amazing, too many and you’re gonna puke.

The stories are so individual it would take far too long to give you anything meaningful. Suffice to say you should get hold of a copy if you haven’t already done so. The end of one of the stories finds a nutshell and squeezes in some of the book’s essence:

“He would fill up the plastic bag again with Bactine, and I would sit and listen to him suck the cold fog down into his lungs. The smell of it would sicken me, and I would crack the window. The snow would slowly cover the windshield. Jimmy’s eyes would turn as red and sticky as candy, and his head would fall back against his seat in a dream. If he were lucky tonight, maybe he would see something that he hadn’t seen before. And then it would be my turn.”

It’s the kind of book that will inspire you to greater things as a writer one minute and make you want to give up the next. The kind of writing that has you wanting to meet the author and to shake his hand and tell him. Take your hat off. Magnificent.

The quotes on the back are a testament to the book's brilliance and, for once, they are spot on. The only thing I'm not sure about is the humour they managed to find. For me I was feeling for those guys every step of the way. I may have cracked a smile, but laugh I did not. I guess that's a matter of the way I'm wired and maybe hints at my shallow interpretation of the book merely at face value. Perhaps it would be better for me to put it down to cultural difference. I didn't care, anyway - I certainly didn't open the book expecting to find laughs.

I hope that for Mr Pollock, unlike any of his characters, he was able to escape from his hometown through his writing. I'd hate to think that he's lying back in some shack popping a couple of black ones because the effects of the last ones are wearing off. I hope he found the freedom Big Bernie Crivens craves in 'I Start Over'.

My week in Knockemstiff has come to an end.

I’m so very glad I was only visiting. However, I shall return - again and again and again.

And Mr Pollock. Please can I have some more?

1 comment:

  1. I do have to read that. sounds great. Just my mug of slosh, as you Southerners say.