There’s no way I could start this review with a sentence better than any of the first lines in Knockemstiff, the debut collection by Donald Ray Pollock. Perhaps this one from the collection’s opening story, “Real Life," which starts, “My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old.” Another, “Bactine,” opens with “I’ve been staying out around Massieville with my crippled uncle because I was broke and unwanted everywhere else, and I spent most of my days changing his slop bucket and sticking fresh cigarettes in his smoke hole.”
If that's not enough to get you reading, consider the first paragraph of the story “Holler”:
I woke up thinking I’d pissed the bed again, but it was just a sticky spot from where Sandy and me fucked the night before. Those kind of things happen when you drink like I do – you shit your pants in the Wal-Mart, you end up living off some crackhead and her poor parents. I raised the blankets just a tad, traced my finger over the blue KNOCKEMSTIFF, OHIO tattoo that Sandy had etched in her skinny ass like a road sign. Why some people need ink to remember where they come from will always be a mystery to me.
If the narrator is really that confused, perhaps he should ask his creator, because Donald Ray Pollock has spilled a hell of a lot of ink in pursuit of his own real life hometown of Knockemstiff. The characters in these stories are mostly rural, poorly educated, and addicted to everything from cigarettes to hard liquor, from fish sticks to stolen pharmaceuticals. Like the reclusive narrator of “Dynamite Hole,” who lives in the canyon beyond the town, these are characters whose desires are formed by watching their neighbors, by coveting their cars and their jobs and their women until something crucial snaps, thrusting them from inaction into whatever comes next.
In “Real Life,” Bobby tells the story of how, when he was seven years old, his father took him and his mother to see Godzilla at the Torch Drive-In. Bobby is a disappointment to his father, who complains to a friend, “I shit you not . . . this boy’s scared of his own goddamn shadow. A fuckin’ bug’s got more balls.” When Bobby and his father take a break from the movie to go to the bathroom, it ends with the father getting in a fistfight with another man, followed by their sons fighting too. Bobby hits the other boy as his father screams encouragement, until “bright red blood sprayed out of his nose.” His reward is the only bit of encouragement he will ever get from his father:
I scooted across the seat and sat behind my father as we raced home. Every time he passed a car, he took another pull from the bottle. Wind rushed through his open window and dried our sweat. The Impala felt like it was floating above the highway. You did good, I kept saying to myself, over and over. It was the only goddamn thing my old man ever said to me that I didn’t try to forget.
Other highlights include “Hair’s Fate,” about a boy named Daniel who hitchhikes his way into trouble, ending up in a trucker’s trailer that “smelled like a closet full of bad times,” and “Fish Sticks,” where the narrator details the advantages and disadvantages of dating a mentally handicapped woman: “Even though she was probably the best woman Del Murray had ever been with – gobs of bare-knuckle sex, the latest psychotropic drugs, a government check – he was still embarrassed to be seen with her in public.”
If it’s not obvious by now, it’s worth pointing out that most of these characters are so far from redemption that whatever hope there is for them lies beyond the scope of these very short stories. There are bad people in Donald Ray Pollock’s fictional version of the town Knockemstiff, and to expect them to come out the other side of their trials either saved or punished is to be disappointed.
In the end, this isn’t the kind of the book that’s going to save anyone’s soul, or show the redemptive possibilities of even the roughest characters. Instead, Donald Ray Pollock offers us nothing more and nothing less than the truth, even when that truth is ugly and twisted and drunk on cheap liquor or high on oxycotin. Better that than another story about people getting healed, another book about a community coming together after generations of failure and misery. Knockemstiff is too good of a book for any of that. It’s a great debut, and without a doubt one of the best books published so far this year.