It wouldn’t have been a book I would have read, had I not seen an article in the Columbus Dispatch about it and the author, Donald Ray Pollock. Mr. Pollock is an older first-time author (one of us boomers) and was born and grew up in a place called Knockemstiff, Ohio.
Knockemstiff the town has almost nothing going for it, nothing it’s famous for, except that it has a funny name and some author wrote a collection of short stories about people who live there. They say the name evolved because of a huge brawl in a tavern, but there are also other myths.
Being interested in older authors, and older first-time authors, and especially older first-time authors who live in somewhat the same vicinity as me, I decided it looked interesting enough to read.
The author dropped out of high school at age 17, worked in a meat packing plant and then spent thirty-two years working in a paper mill. He received an MFA from Ohio State in 2009. This is very impressive, that a person from such a background would do so much later in life. He obviously saw the humor, and the sadness, in his surroundings and probably wanted to write about it.
The stories take place from the sixties through the nineties. In the first story we see a character as a child, and in the end, he returns as an adult. He was a messed up kid, and he’s still messed up as an adult. All the people of Knockemstiff are messed up.
I thought a long time about reviewing this book, because these stories are very graphic, profane, and potentially upsetting. They are not for everyone. For the reader who has an aversion to the F word or senseless violence or drug use or not quite normal sexual behavior, you might want to pass on it.
But I read it, because I was curious, as one might watch a movie about gang violence or the mafia. And I found it to be one of those books that I didn’t forget. It stayed with me, partially due to the shock factor but mostly because the writing is superb.
When I went back and reread some of the stories, I remembered there was one that I found extremely unsettling. It’s the second one, Dynamite Hole. I couldn’t reread it. It was too much. It’s the part in the movie where I turn away, I can’t watch.
The stories are funny but pathetic. I sure hope they aren’t true, that there really are people like the characters in Knockemstiff. I’d sure hate to think that.
One is called Bactine. A couple of guys “huffing Bactine”, end up in an all night Crispie Creme hoping to meet up with a guy who was supposed to have “some Seconal suppositories left over from his dead dad’s unsuccessful bout with cancer”. The story is about that visit to “The Creme” described thus:
The place was all windows and plastic woodwork and those buzzing fluorescent lights that always make me look like a corpse. A radio in the back was playing a fast Christmas song that only religious people could understand.
The waitress sleeps on her feet behind the case of “day olds”.
Another story, called “I Start Over”, is the one I remembered the most, about a desperate guy who knows his best years are way behind him, saddled with a son who is brain damaged because of a drug overdose. He eats junk food though he knows he shouldn’t. He thinks:
Besides, I’m beginning to believe that anything I do to extend my life is just going to be outweighed by the agony of living it.
While in the drive thru lane at the Dairy Queen, he becomes involved in an altercation and beats up a couple of kids in the car behind him who are making fun of his son drooling in the backseat. At least one of the kids is seriously hurt. He knows it’s over, he takes off but hears sirens after a while and knows they are for him. Hence the title “I Start Over”. He was really ending it, his unhappy existence.
The characters in the stories are a collection of addicts, rapists, molesters, runaways. Crippled, disfigured, damaged and demented characters. Sad, desperate people living lives we can’t even imagine. There’s sex without love, and good parents are nonexistent in this collection.
Yet, because the writing is so precise, the descriptions so good, and the underlying element of humor throughout, it is very enjoyable.
Beware of that second story though. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!