#23 - Knockemstiff, by Donald Ray Pollock (New York: Doubleday, 2008).
Opening line: "My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old."
Summary: "Spanning a period from the mid-sixties to the late nineties, the linked stories that compose Knockemstiff feature a cast of recurring characters who are woebegone, baffled, and depraved -- but irresistably, undeniably real. Rendered in the American vernacular with vivid imagery and a wry, dark sense of humor, these thwarted and sometimes violent lives jump off the page at the reader with inexorable force. A father pumps his son full of steroids so he can vicariously relive his days as a perpetual runner-up bodybuilder. A psychotic rural recluse comes upon two siblings committing incest and feels compelled to take action. Donald Ray Pollock presents his characters and the sordid goings-on with a stern intelligence, a bracing absence of value judgments, and a refreshingly dark sense of bottom-dog humor."
My take: Whew. The blurb on the jacket says Pollock grew up in the real Knockemstiff, Ohio, and in his afterword, he describes his neighbors as the kindest, most caring people he's ever met (or some such). Well, it didn't show in the book. By about the fifth story, I'd lost track of how many people were assaulted, drunk, strung out on Oxycontin, engaged in coercive sexual activity, and so on. The writing is brilliant, and with a relatively short book of even shorter stories, it should be a quick read -- except that I found it so damned depressing I couldn't take more than a chapter or two at a time. Pollock's vision of rural, Midwestern Americana is one of almost-unrelieved bleakness. Without exception, every character is hopeless, strung out on drugs and/or alcohol, and just plain trapped. This New York Times review gives a more detailed overview, but for the moment, I'm off to read something a little less dismal.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.