There is a disappointing sameness to the stories in Knockemstiff, Donald Ray Pollock’s collection, which in no way is a novel, although that’s what Publishers Weekly called it. Some of the stories are, considered separately, quite appealing--I remember reading the title story somewhere awhile ago and I would have to say that’s still the one story that holds up well under scrutiny--but mostly the book is about very unsympathetic, addicted, abusive jerks. The fact that they all live in or around Knockemstiff, Ohio, isn’t the only thing that connects them--you wouldn’t want to live next door to a single one of them, and you wouldn’t want your child to go to school with their children. How's that for linked?
It is mildly amusing that characters occasionally recur over the course of the book. Bobby, for example, is the child protagonist of the opening story, in which he sees his father beat up another man in the restroom of a drive in, and then is goaded into beating up the man’s son--an act that pleases Bobby’s father but contributes to Bobby’s twisted character, which we see revealed in later stories. Most of the stories in the book are told in the first person, and the only sensible reaction a reader can have to these narrators is either to yell at the page, “Don’t do that! You’re making a big mistake!” or to cheer when they get raped, or beaten up, or thrown out on the streets, because that’s pretty much what they deserve.
I should say that I’m not a fan of the “transgressive” genre--think Chuck Palahniuk, who, not surprisingly, blurbed this book--in which violence and drugs seem to be the whole point of life. That’s certainly the case here. I can take that for a story at a time when I come across it in a magazine, but as a book it isn’t something I want to read in one go. Or at all.
Having said that, the book is as "linked" as most. There are overlapping and repeated characters (although, like the stories themselves, these characters are at times indistinguishable); the stories are all set in the vicinity of the same small Ohio town in roughly the same time period; and they all deal with a kind of alienation that bleeds into savagery, in a way that feels more true than it does real. It's not an uplifting read, to say the least.
Next up: Later, at the Bar, by Rebecca Barry