Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock

Cover of "Knockemstiff"
Cover of Knockemstiff

I will admit it.  I am a bit of a squish; a wimp; a prude even.  It is not that I don’t read books that touch on darker subjects or explore issues like sex and violence.  But I will admit that I prefer those subjects in small doses.  And I will further opine that few writers do these sorts of subjects well.

All of this is a roundabout introduction to my feelings on Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock.  I ordered this collection of short stories on my Kindle after having heard about Pollack’s unique path from mill worker to Ohio State student to author.  As an Ohio based blogger it seemed something I should check out.

So I did.  But I ran into a small problem.  While I could recognize that talent was involved in writing these stories, I just couldn’t bear to read them in anything but small amounts.  So I would read a story or two on the bus or before bed, but I had to spread them out over a period of time.

Publishers Weekly‘s review might help give you a sense of why I had this reaction:

A native of Knockemstiff, Ohio, Pollock delivers poignant and raunchy accounts of his hometown’s sad and stagnant residents in his debut story collection that may remind readers of its thematic grand-daddy, Winesburg, Ohio. The works span 50 years of violence, failure, lust and depravity, featuring characters like Jake, an abandoned hermit who dodges the draft during WWII, lives in a bus and discovers two young siblings committing incest on the bank of a creek, and Bobby, a recovering alcoholic who must face the imminent death of his abusive father. The language and imagery of the novel are shockingly direct in detailing the pitiful lives of drug abusers, perverts and a forgotten population that just isn’t much welcome nowhere in the world. Many of the characters appear in more than one story, providing a gritty depth to the whole, but the character that stands out the most is the town, as dismal and hopeless as the locals. Pollock is intimate with the grimy aspects of a small town (especially one named after a fistfight) full of poor, uneducated people without futures or knowledge of any other way to live. The most startling thing about these stories is they have an aura of truth.

Amazon listed it in their Best Books of March last year and summed it thus:

Pollock pulls no punches–his prose is blunt and visceral, as well as stylish and skilled–and reading these mini grand guignols can be like crunching on a mouthful of your own broken teeth. He resists casting judgment (or sympathy) on his doomed reprobates; predator or prey (or sometimes both), Pollock contemplates his characters with all the warmth of a “frozen bleach bottle.”  It’s an astonishing debut.

All of the above is true and accurate to my mind.  It is an astonishing debut.  It is gritty and shockingly direct.  It does have an all too depressing aura of truth.  But in many ways I just didn’t want to keep reading.  Only my stubborn insistence of completing books helped get my through.

Pollack is clearly talented – the language and imagery involved prove that – but most days I just don’t feel like crunching on a mouthful of my own broken teeth.  So if you are made of hardier stuff than me – if you enjoy this punch in the gut kind of writing – then be sure to check out Knockemstiff.  It is a shinning example of this genre.

Those of you more faint of heart or easily depressed might want to avoid it or, like me, take it in small dozes.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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