Most new American literary sensations tend to be young, sophisticated, middle-class or upper-class graduates of elite writing programs. Author Donald Ray Pollock comes from a starkly different place: the desolate world of Appalachian rural poverty. A high school dropout, Pollock worked at a paper mill in Chillicothe, Ohio, for thirty-two grueling years before becoming a writer in his middle agean almost unheard-of career trajectory that lends his debut story collection, Knockemstiff, an extraordinary degree of blue-collar verisimilitude.
In eighteen gothic stories set in and around Knockemstiff (a real though now moribund township in southern Ohio), Pollock explores the crude, damaged, often grotesque lives of the American backwoods poor. His choice of subject matter places him in a long and distinguished literary tradition whose practitioners include Mark Twain, Sherwood Anderson, Erskine Caldwell, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Harry Crews, Breece D’J Pancake, Carolyn Chute, Russell Banks, Pinckney Benedict, Annie Proulx, Dorothy Allison, and many others. What is unique about Pollock’s fiction is its powerful blend of exceedingly grim (sometimes horrifying) content, economy and precision of form, and utter neutrality of tonea combination that makes these stories vivid, enigmatic, Kafkaesque nightmares that linger in the imagination.
Though they feature a diverse array of characters, the stories in Knockemstiff share some common themes and concerns. All of Pollock’s characters are losers: poor, uneducated, venal, coarse, lonely, impulsive, despairing. Woefully ill equipped to cope in modern society, the denizens of Knockemstiff devote their energies not to improving themselvesa prospect that seems remote if not impossiblebut to escaping their miseries any way they can, without regard to consequences. The prime means of escape are the usual ones chosen by the dispossessed in every land and epoch: cathartic violence, cheap sex, chronic drug and alcohol abuse, and inane wish-fulfillment fantasies (often centered on revenge of some sort). Moreover, many of Pollock’s dissolute characters eventually succumb to what psychiatrists rather euphemistically term decompensation, the functional deterioration of mental health with attendant loss of cognition and memory. In sum, a gradual but ineluctable entropy rules in Pollock’s universe; in every instance, things go from bad to worse as polluted minds and bodies weaken, wither, and die. However, Pollock’s aim is not to wallow in depravity and ruin. A closer examination of these stories reveals a deep interest in the vagaries of human psychology. Pollock’s characters suffer all manner of humiliation, deprivation, and traumaconditions that give rise to unpredictable forms of displacement (the term in psychology for an unconscious defense mechanism whereby the mind redirects affect from an object felt to be dangerous or unacceptable to an object felt to be safe or acceptable). It might be said that displacement is the subject of Pollock’s book.
Violence against the weak, unsuspecting, and vulnerable is the most common form of displacement practiced by Pollock’s down-and-outers. In “Real Life,” an ignorant father thinks he is doing his son a service by infecting him with the worst legacy imaginable: mindless, reactive aggression. Bobby, the first-person narrator, recalls an incident he witnessed when he was seven: his brutal, alcoholic father, Vernon, beating a man half to death in the men’s room of a drive-in motion-picture theater after the man admonished him for cursing in front of his son. If that were not enough, Vernon encouraged Bobby to attack and beat up the man’s son, which Bobby did, to his father’s great pride and delight.
In “Schott’s Bridge” neediness collides with predation when Todd Russell, a lonely, timid gay man, forms an ill-advised friendship with Frankie Johnson, a local homophobic tough who displaces his own masculine insecurities by...
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