Donald Ray Pollock: Perfect for Palahniuk fans
Perfect for: Palahniuk fans, rubberneckers, ambulance chasers, Oklahomans that are not sheltered
For each of the times that small-town living has been romanticized as quiet and easy, Donald Ray Pollack has documented the special forms the hardship takes for rural communities. He presents them in his first published work, a series of intertwining short stories about Knockemstiff, Ohio. In “Knockemstiff,” Pollack explores themes ranging from drug use to incest and homosexuality. He addresses family relations, isolation, the desire to leave home, and the inability to really get away, all while remaining true to rural living.
This my sound too close to a made-for-TV movie, but don’t expect this to be a feel good romp through emotional pain and redemption. Pollock’s work pulls the reader forward, opening with a story of a boy’s first fight and ending with a man’s last. Each story ends in a way that all at once makes you sick to your stomach and wanting more. Which means, expect conflict, resolution that isn’t always happy even if it is moving, and a lot of being face to face with the car wreck that you wanted to look at from a safe distance.
What makes “Knockemstiff”unique is the way that many of the scenarios in the book are true-to-life. While reading the book, I found myself reflecting heavily on situations that I encountered as a youth in rural (or maybe “suburban” is a better word) Oklahoma. Pollock writes as though he’s been through a form of almost every story, only once seeming unbelievable (in “Discipline,” a tale about a father’s desire to live vicariously through his son’s wrestling), but otherwise walking the thin wire between sensationsalism and human angst with ease (read “Hair’s Fate,” a story of a boy trying to leave town but being picked up by a trucker with other plans, and “Schott’s Bridge,” which deals with a life-long and mostly unreciprocated love, for a clear example of this).
Conversely, Pollocks characters all carry his voice with them as they go. They are at times, bitter, hopeless, hopeful, simple, or complex, but all are presented in a style that is similar to watching a documentary. Pollock refuses to let you look away. It happened, and it is happening, and time is passing, but here is something important – the impact that a small town has on its’ inhabitatants, and the impact that they have on each other.
This is where Pollock is most masterful. Characters are introduced in episode, then revisited later under entirely different circumstances, but the development is apparent. Pollock holds the impact of events in high regard, and maintains a theme of struggle across their lifespans. These are real characters, with real lives, that are occuring even when the story is not being told.
“Knockemstiff” is all at once a punch in the gut, a ball in your throat, and an exposé of rural America. Although it at times paints a portrait of unsophisticated townfolk embracing disaster, the painting is so well done that it is no bother to overlook the lack of intellectual individuals and diamonds in the rough. As stated before, this is no feel good romp. The diamonds are never uncovered, or if they are, they are left in the dust.
This book comes personally recommended by Chuck Palahniuk, who also interviewed the author.