Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Missing Link Project: Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock

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


Tim Jones-Yelvington said...

Oh, I disagree completely. I found the characters complex, was able to emphasize with all, found many endearing in their fucked-up-ed-ness, and also I thought there was a lot of dark humor and resilience within the ugly. I don't think violence and drugs are "the whole point of life" so much as... well, what else do you do? There's not much left of the town and most of these folks know nothing else. What I thought was admirable was Pollock's love and respect for his hometown seemed evident to me even as he portrayed its people w/ brutal honesty.

Clifford Garstang said...

Yeah, I have a feeling I might be kind of alone on this. I'm the only one I know who didn't like Jesus' Son either.

KevinS said...

I tend to find the books that Chuck P blurbs are really unlike his own (which vary wildly in quality).
And I don't really care if this book is "linked" or called a "novel" by some, I just know it was favorite book of last year.

Dan Wickett said...

I doubt you're alone, Cliff (though must admit, this was one of my favorite books last year). I think it's more likely that other readers that weren't big fans either a) weren't willing to voice against the tide, or b) didn't finish enough of the collection to decide they'd write their opinion about it.

I agree with Tim about the dark humor and resilience, but it's a book that I suggested people sit down with and read two stories before deciding to buy it when I recommended it, as I could certainly see some people not enjoying tales quite as dark as Don spins.

emmy said...

Comparisons between Winesburg Ohio and Knockemstiff seem only to hold on the most superficial level with regard to subject and place. With the exception of only one or two stories, the writing in Knockemstiff read for me like raunchy Young Adult fiction, with Pollock’s straining to emulate O’Connor and Faulkner and even Carver and Johnson and Chabon coming across utterly transparent, and because of that, was for me, painful to read.
I agree with the San Francisco Chronicle’s assessment that Knockemstiff is as “raw as it gets,” but find no literary merit in that kind of over the top grosser-than-gross rawness, like a bunch of deranged teenagers trying to outdo each other around a campfire. In “Dynamite Hole,” for instance, you have incest between a brother and sister, then the story’s main character killing the girl’s brother, then raping and killing the girl…and then, and this is the same story, he’s somehow able to lure a couple of men into a snake pit where one dies, moaning and crying and calling out to his mother.
So, in that short ten page story, you have incest, murder, rape, murder, murder.
And while none of the other stories thankfully ever come close to the creepy-silly hyperbolic violence of “Dynamite Hole,” the majority of the others, all stories of extreme domestic dysfunction, have nearly enough flies, snot, shit, and loveless, soulless sex to make up for the lack of violence. Categorizing this as a novel of dysfunction was a little problematic, since I had a difficult time seeing this as a novel, though I guessed this is probably a novel in stories or an episodic work of fiction. And yet, with the exception of Rainy Sunday, the voice of the central character from story to story changes so little, remains so static, it seemed towards the end as though I were reading one long short story. For instance, I had difficulty tracing all of the characters as they recurred in different stories, because they all seemed like stock hillbillies and the jump in years barely registered in any noticeable change in character or setting. Many of the characters names were so uninspired and seemed meant to instantly bring the stock character to life in the readers mind. Names like Vernon and Boo, Wanda Wipert and Wimpy Miller; Del and Duane and Dee.
Mainly, I think this novel serves no purpose because it lacks empathy for its characters and a mature artistic vision and this grave deficit is evident in the writing itself; and as Faulkner once famously put it:

The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Tim Jones-Yelvington said...

Where do you feel your heart if not in your glands? ...I'm exaggerating a little bit, but really, the body is where emotion happens, 'love' and 'lust' and whatever else are all wrapped up together in a way I cannot parse out so easily. That whole quote feels built upon some old-school Euro-Christian mind/body split-type way of thinking that is so not where I live.

Kyle Minor said...

I'm usually with you Cliff, but I think you got this one wrong.

Clifford Garstang said...

Kyle, you're allowed to disagree with me! But I'm not sure I can be "wrong" about not liking something--tastes differ, don't they?