Donald Ray Pollock and the hard knock school.

18 Mar

Mid-March, and it’s snowing outside.

I’ve been in a re-reading mood. First The Sandman; then two by Bolano: By Night in Chile and Nazi Literature in the Americas; then Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. I also found some time for new stuff, including Manchette’s Fatale and Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff.

A collection of linked stories set in the tiny town of Pollock’s youth, Knockemstiff is strong stuff indeed. Pollock’s a powerful writer, masculine, blunt and spare. He’s also unsubtle, vicious, and overpowering. Think Winesberg, Ohio, only marinated with rape, drug abuse, misery, and mental dilapidation matched only by the physical squalor.

Pollock is part of a newish wave of authors who toiled in working class jobs before entering MFA programs in middle age. (He worked in a paper mill for thirty-two years.) Frank Bill, Daniel Woodrell, and F.X. Toole—who published his first short story collection when he was in his seventies—belong to this crop of tough dudes. They have, as a group, eschewed the small, ponderous short fiction that has dominated American literature for the last fifty years. Instead they write gritty, cornpone noir, stories of excess, soaked in spit and blood. There’s no room for redemption, heroics, integrity. The characters are too busy getting drunk, intimidating their families, ruining their lives.

Pollock is the strongest, but he’s strong like a pint of rotgut whiskey. Reading him burns. He causes harm. You know you’ve read something in Knockemstiff—it really is a visceral experience—but it feels like being slapped in the face, kicked in the shins, beaten up and humiliated. Like swimming in bilge water. Or getting doused with plastic jugs of white vinegar. I felt hungover through half the stories.

Stories linked by desperation and squalor.

Stories linked by desperation and squalor.

Bitter, cruel, dilapidated, unbearably trashy, the town of Knockemstiff emerges as a squalid hamlet abandoned by God and possessed by the devil. Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson and Jim Thompson duke it out in these stories. Reading them is to be immersed in a bleak, violent place, all the more unsettling because of its banality. Repugnant, dank, rotting interiors matched only by the decaying bodies of its characters.

The strongest stories are “Schott’s Bridge” and “Bactine,” although all the stories in the collection are of a quality. He can flat-out write:

“We broke in through the bathroom window. Pressed into the gray scum of the tub, our boot prints looked like fossil feet frozen in rocks that my crazy cousins said the Devil had planted all over the world to trick people into believing we came from frog shit and monkeys.” And later,

“The pills were wrapped in a sheet of bloody butcher’s paper that had Chuckie’s Hog Brains writ on it with a blue crayon. Somebody had already eaten the brains.”

But there’s the form—descriptive and evocative and sparse—and then there’s the goddamned content, slimy and icky and nasty. Still, definitely worth checking out.

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