Two years ago, the Wall Street Journal ran an article by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg entitled “A New American Voice” about Knockemstiff, a debut collection of stories by a new writer named Donald Ray Pollock. The article caught my eye not only because it was about a collection of short stories, which the WSJ seldom deigns to mention, but also because the author was 53, grew up in a small town in Appalachian southern Ohio, and went to school at Ohio University, my own graduate school alma mater. Early reviews compared Pollock to Eastern Kentucky writer Chris Offutt and Tennessee late bloomer William Gay, both favorite writers of mine and likened his book to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, one of the great American short story collections. However, being the parsimonious country boy that I am, I was not willing to shell out my twenty-something bucks for a hardback copy until I read at least one of the stories. I found the story “Real Life,” online.
The first couple of sentences go like this: “My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old. It was the only thing he was ever any good at.” O.K., I was up for that, but the first sentence of the second paragraph—“It was hotter than a fat lady’s box that evening”—let me know I was not in Winesburg. And it didn’t get any better. In this little family outing, the mother’s main talent is to shove a hotdog down her throat without messing up her lipstick. The father, concerned that drinking from a bottle would make a wino out of a man, drinks his whiskey from the car ashtray, butts and all. The real action begins when the father and son go to the concession-stand, and a man with arms the “size of fence posts” tells the father to watch his foul language around his son, a boy about the narrator’s size. When the father hits the big man, making the air “whoosh out of his body like a fart,” he encourages the narrator to beat up on the son as well. The story ends with the father bragging to the mother, “I bet a paycheck he broke that kid’s nose, the way the blood came out.” The narrator goes to bed licking the blood off his knuckles. “I tore at the skin with my teeth. I wanted more. I would always want more.”
Well, I didn’t; that was enough for me. I have always been a defender of everybody’s right to write about any horrible thing they want to, but there was such a grotesque absence of “redeeming social value” in the story that I really did not have the stomach for any more. I remember men and boys like the narrator and his father when I was growing up in Eastern Kentucky, but mostly at a distance. I had no desire to encounter them back then, and I had no wish to read about them in Pollock’s over-the-top stories.
So why did I recently buy Knockemstiff and read all eighteen stories? Three reasons: One, it was in paperback for about ten bucks on Amazon. Two, it was on the list of short story collections published in the last two years that I had not read and promised in an earlier blog that I would eventually get to. Three, you shouldn’t judge a man’s work based on only one encounter with it.
Knockemstiff is a page-turner, all right, but primarily because it is all action and little thought and because Pollock’s style is direct and well edited—in short, an easy visceral read. The people who live in the little hardscrabble hamlet of Knockemstiff (which is about eight or ten miles south of Chillicothe) snort Bactine out of paper bags, have sex with their siblings, eat nothing but fried bologna, cheese slices, and Krispie Kreme donuts, drink a lot of beer and cheap booze, run meth labs, get hooked on OxyContin, beat up their kids, masturbate with toy dolls and a mud dauber’s nest, and rape ”retards” (to use the language of the addicts, drunks, and lay-abouts that populate Knockemstiff).
I read the whole damn thing and then flung it across the room. This was not Winesburg; it was Tobacco Road. The folks of Winesburg have some emotional complexity. They are “grotesque,” as Anderson called them, because of their unfulfilled desires and their loneliness, not because they snort Bactine and rape their sisters. I did some research on Pollock and found the following:
Although the publishers of the paperback quote the Wall Street Journal as saying that Pollock “could be the next important voice in American fiction,” what the WSJ article actually said was: “Now some in the book world say he could be the next important voice in American fiction.” Well, I couldn’t find anybody in the book world who said that. The New York Times review by Jonathan Miles was thoughtful but restrained, concluding, “Pollock’s voice is fresh and full-throated, and while these stories travel negligible distances, even from one another, the best of them leave an indelible smear.” To my way of thinking, when you finish the book you may feel the smear leaves a bad smell. And if you are a poor boy from the mountains, you may resent being tarred with Pollock’s stinky brush.
There were more publicity-driven pieces about the author than reviews of the book. The fact that Pollock is a high school dropout, a recovering alcoholic, and a laboring man who went to college late in life and didn’t start writing until about eight years ago made what Doubleday’s marketing director called “a great publicity hook to go out with.” The fact that such a man was able to write at all made the yuppies in the New York publishing world ooh and ah. The fact that he wrote about disgusting people in a funny-named village in the Appalachian mountains made them shake their heads in condescending disgust and nod their heads in agreement that this stuff could sell.
The buzz about the book is all about marketing, about selling the man, not the fiction, about perpetuating a stereotype of a region and its people. There is no human complexity in Pollock’s characters, just mostly meanness. Some of the people in these stories long for a better life and have media-created dreams of what that life might be, but most are just too ignorant to give a damn about anything but immediate simplistic, ugly pleasures. The problem is, too many readers, especially those who remember Deliverance, will assume that everyone in the Appalachian mountains are like the no-accounts in Knockemstiff. I have said it before, and I’ll say it again. Mountain folk are the last cultural minority who must suffer simplistic stereotypes.
It was a serendipitous coincidence that while I was reading Pollock’s book, my wife brought me the March issue of Smithsonian, which featured an article about the Eastern Kentucky photographer Shelby Lee Adams, with a copy of his famous 1990 photograph Home Funeral. (See attached). The author of the article, Abigail Tucker, interviewed the grown-up woman, nicknamed Nay Bug, who is the little girl standing by the coffin in the picture.
Tucker notes that some critics say that Shelby Lee Adams is exploiting a region “already saddled with stereotypes involving poverty and violence.” Adams responds that he is capturing a fading culture and that as bleak as his photographs may be, “Within the shadows lie the depth and beauty of human beings…. Until we understand our own darkness, we won’t understand our beauty.” Perhaps that is true. I am certainly not trying to deny the effects of poverty on the people from the region I am proud to call home. I recognize those honest and hard-working I am happy to call “my people” in many of Adams’ photograph. You can see them yourselves on his website.
But I see no beauty in the darkness of Donald Ray Pollock’s stories. I would defend his right to write about the self-indulgent junkies of Knockemstiff. But I want nothing to do with them. It takes a very fine writer with a miraculous style to transform the sad and lonely people of rural Russia, Dublin Ireland, or Winesburg, Ohio into characters of depth and complexity. Donald Ray Pollock is no Turgenev, James Joyce, or Sherwood Anderson. He has created a lineup of ignorant irredeemables who are what my mother would call “trashy”-- “mean as snakes” and “orney as polecats.”