by Donald Ray Pollock
REVIEW OF KNOCKEMSTIFF BY DONALD RAY POLLOCK
by Ted Gioia
Do you like stories about low-lifes? Ah, but how low are you willing to go? If
Knockemstiff, the debut book by Donald Ray Pollock, were a contestant at a
limbo dance competition, that stick would be no more than six inches above
Some folks have compared Pollock to Raymond
Carver. But the trailer park deadbeats in Carver’s
stories look like Parisian sophisticates compared
to the characters who populate Knockemstiff.
I could try to introduce them, but it's better to let
them introduce themselves.
Here’s a typical set-up for a Pollock story: “I'd been
staying out around Massieville with my crippled
uncle because I was broke and unwanted every-
where else, and I spent most of my days changing
his slop bucket and sticking fresh cigarettes in his
smoke hole.... [I'd been] huffing several cans of
Bactine, and then I was sick, and my brain felt like a frozen bleach bottle.”
Or how about this touching vignette? “By the end of the fifth day, we were
fried. Now the speed was like water running through our veins, and we
couldn't get off any more. Our throats had turned to leather from cigarettes
and talk; our gums bled and our jaws ached from grinding our teeth together.
Frankie kept whispering to a beer can that he held in his hand like a
microphone, and I had struggled off and on all that day to convince myself that
it wasn't talking back to him.”
Here’s another typical interlude: “Some ugly bastard named Tex Colburn
caught me in the Paint Creek bottoms picking through a patch of buds that
he'd been planning on ripping off himself. By the time he ran me down in that
cornfield, he was so pissed that he had his boys hold me while he chipped my
front teeth out one by one with a spike nail he pulled out of a rotten fence
And, yes, there are ladies in Knockemstiff: “And even though she was probably
the best woman Del Murray had ever been with -- gobs of bare-knuckle sex,
the latest psychotropic drugs, a government check -- he was still embarrassed
to be seen with her in public. Anyone who’s ever dated a retard will
understand what he was up against.”
You get the idea. When they make the movie version of Knockemstiff, they
won’t be casting George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Julia Roberts. You
better stick with Ocean’s Eleven, if you need glamour and good looks in a
But Pollock can write. His prose is brisk and creative. His dialogue is first rate.
His stories are well-paced and memorable, although often rather disturbing.
My one concern is that Pollock's characters all seem cut from the same cloth.
Can a whole town be populated by so many drugged up, narcissistic,
scheming, vengeful, self-destructive losers?
Yes, Knockemstiff is a real city in Ohio, and the actual home town of Pollock,
who became a writer only after 32 years working in a paper mill. Not many
authors publish their first book at age 53. But, unlike most young writers
publishing in their 20s, Pollock has a full life of experiences to draw on for his
stories. Decades spent in humbling pursuits outside of college creative writing
programs no doubt contribute to the grit and power of these narratives.
Ninety years ago, Sherwood Anderson created a series of stories about small
town life in Ohio. He tried to show the dark underside of Winesburg, Ohio,
presenting characters who were (in his famous description) like the misshapen
apples that grew in the local orchards. But Anderson’s fruit, despite its twisted
appearance, still had pockets of sweet flavor. Pollock’s are so rotten, you
would rather eat a lime, peel and all.
But there is one bit of good news in the book, although Pollock saves it for the
acknowledgements at the very end of the book. He reassures us that his
family and neighbors back in the real Knockemstiff, Ohio, were nothing like the
characters in his book. Phew, what a relief!
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