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Knockemstiff Paperback – March 10, 2009
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“Knockemstiff is a powerful, remarkable, exceptional book."—Los Angeles Times“More engaging than any new fiction in years.” —Chuck Palahniuk“Pollock’s voice is fresh and full-throated…His steely, serrated prose…calls to mind Harry Crews.” —The New York Times Book Review“[Donald Ray Pollock] could be the next important voice in American fiction.”—Wall Street Journal“These are absorbing stories that linger and haunt. They crept up on me, leaving me breathless and shaken.” —Oregonian “Startling, bleak, uncompromising, and funny…This is as raw as American fiction gets. It is an unforgettable experience.” —San Francisco Chronicle“Here is a collection of stories that are perhaps unique in our time…Wry and raw and poignant, these extraordinary stories are gritty with the yeast of folks caught in the act of being only too human.” —Larry Heinemann, author of Paco’s Story“Profanely comic…Pollock’s tales are spiked with a lurid panache that handily earns its own literary genre: Southern Ohio Gothic.” —Elle “Pollock doesn’t so much push the envelope as incinerate it, but his potent narrative gifts (and pitch-black humor) make it impossible to look away from the flames.” —The Washington Post“This electrifying collection of linked stories uses the voices of the rural hamlet of Knockemstiff to create a coherent world of echoing themes and recurring characters that has the drive and impact of a fine novel. Pollock brings grace and precision to colloquial language, and the ferocious integrity of his vision is flat-out stunning. Pollock grapples with savagery and reveals primal tenderness. After every story in Knockemstiff I had to take a walk and let my head cool down. I keep reaching for some other writer to compare him with—maybe a Raymond Carver with hope and vitality, or a godless Flannery O’Connor—but Pollock is no shadow of anybody else. This is a powerful talent at work.” —Katherine Dunn, author of Geek Love
About the Author
Donald Ray Pollock, recipient of the 2009 PEN/Bingham Fellowship, made his literary debut in 2008 with the critically acclaimed story collection, Knockemstiff. He worked as a laborer at the Mead Paper Mill in Chillicothe, Ohio, from 1973 to 2005. He holds an MFA from Ohio State University. His work has appeared in, among other publications, Epoch, Granta, and the New York Times.
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Stories that stand out for me include “Dynamite Hole,” about a young runaway who spends three years hiding in the woods of rural Ohio, “Blessed,” about an injured second story man hooked on pain meds, and “Honolulu,” about a man slowly losing his mind and his caregiver wife slowly losing the dreams of her youth.
Many of the characters in “Knockemstiff” appear in more than one story, lending an authentic layering depth of place. They are desperate, clinging to hope amidst their dying town and its disappearing dreams. This read is not for everyone. It will beat you up and leave you bruised and bloody, but always wanting more.
If there is a problem with “Knockemstiff” it is that there is very little if any letup. The haunting hopelessness is unrelenting, but maybe that is more a valid reflection of the characters’ circumstances than on any arguments about traditional style and pacing. Traditional it is not, and the pace fairly blisters through each of these dark trips through the side of Middle America that most only whisper about.
I spent time growing up in southern West Virginia, and most of these characters and places ring true to me. Pollock is brutally unforgiving, unsentimental, and without judgment. He leaves us with a sense of reality so cold and clear that it blindsides us and slaps us in the face. Pollock is the real deal. His second book and first full length novel “The Devil All the Time” is a must read as well.
I know this sounds contradictory, but let me break it down:
First, my friends like to read "well written prose," meaning narratives that stick to proper (E.B. White style) English. They avoid narrations or even much dialogue in street or "low class" language. Yet, they would not consider themselves snobs. They just empathize with characters who speak and think as they do. (Most of us like familiar entertainment, but you may be more adventurous.)
In addition, most of them read somewhat more optimistic novels. They avoid novels that pull them into really poor characters who lack ambition, dignity, ethics, and hope.
Yes, the characters are miserable, often unethical, desperately poor, with little hope (or bizarre, self-destructive ambitions). They had sad childhoods where they were deprived of healthy attachment and often abused.
I loved this book. Why would I read about these characters?
They speak like they channel the Gods, not like self-conscious or lyrical authors, but openly, almost possessed. They seem to say, I may not have much, but I have a wild and entertaining voice. Obviously, Donald Ray Pollock also channels his wild and entertaining voice through these characters. Of course, he knows similar people, but he uses their humor and wit (well, many of them -- some are brain damaged) to play riffs and arpeggios with words.
Here, play with words does not mean high-minded metaphors. It means metaphors close to the events and subjects that jolt the senses. For example, Pollock writes that someone was "shaking like a dog shitting razor blades." He says that someone else was surprised "as if they'd just discovered Elvis beating his meat in their shower stall." Did I mention the undercurrent of humor in the book?
It is obvious why my friends (as I describe them), would not like this fiction. Before you read this book, read the quotes again in the previous paragraph and decide if they seem adventurous, vivid and fresh (while being ugly) or if they just seem too grotesque. If they seem vivid and fresh, even though ugly, then please do read this book. The narratives are also beautifully constructed.
For these stories, play with words also means just the right details, the sensual details, the revolting details, the details that bring these characters and the settings into your world, your perceptions.
I believe that art should bring life and death into our world -- fresh, flying and horrible. I do not believe that art must give us an uplifting message. (None here, dear reader.) If I want prose with a message, I read non-fiction on ethics or religion.
In Knockemstiff, play with words has a savage side (but so does life). Characters words often debase others or make elaborate sketches of cynicism and disgust. Yet the words carry beauty and sometimes transport the characters.
Some stories end with heart-breaking, yet totally unsentimental pathos. In "Schott's Bridge," Tom, a young, effeminate gay guy suffers not only the estrangement that most of these characters endure, but he also suffers use and abuse from other (closeted) homosexual men, including one who viciously hates himself for his hidden attraction to Tom. Tom is more than the other users, abusers and self-deceivers. He not only accepts himself to a greater extend, but he also has a longing for life, for connection. It is that longing for life that pulls the reader into the character. That longing also makes the character tragic.
So, if you are still with me, then also consider short stories by authors that Donald Ray Pollock says (in interviews) have inspired him: John Cheever, Hemmingway, Flannery O'Connor, Richard Yates and Denis Johnson (Jesus' Son). Also, read Pollock's novel: "The Devil All the Time."