Rating: 5 Stars
Take Cormac McCarthy, place him in a desolate hollow in Southern Ohio populated by rural white trash doomed to be born, live, and die there, and you have Knockemstiff.
This is quite simply, a breathtaking collection of short stories. I’ve previously written that in collections like these, I count myself lucky if even half of them strike a chord. Here, quite literally every single story is brilliant. Every story left me shocked, horrified, and then awestruck at the words on the page.
Simply the first lines of some of the stories are themselves little works of art. Consider:
My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old. (Real Life)
I’d 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. (Bactine)
Standing in his underwear in front of the faded pink duplex that he and Geraldine rented, Del came out of a blackout while taking a leak in the dead August grass. (Assailants)
Half the time now the only thing crawling around in Howard Bowman’s worn-out head is that four-letter word, the one swear that his wife no longer allows in the house. (Honolulu)
It’s fascinating because Pollock, born in Knockemstiff (now a ghost town), worked in paper mills in the area until he was fifty. He then enrolled at Ohio State University, and while there, this collection was published. This is his first published work. That is simply amazing.
Clearly, Pollock knows of what he speaks. His collection of characters, as beaten down, careworn, and nihilist as they come, all seem to have something at their core that makes you want to care for them, even as you can see the vast wreckage of their lives thus far and the probably even greater wreckage to come. His characters make wrong choices, know they’re making wrong choices, but have the dignity to live with the choices that they’ve made. There’s a kind of honest stoic bravery to such a life, which comes out in these stories.
I could keep quoting sections from the book for hours. Nearly every page had a sentence that either left me heartbroken or gasping or laughing.
There is the Alzheimer man, desperately trying to hold onto his few remaining memories, finally deciding to kill himself while he still can before he becomes a complete burden on his family; as his finger crawls to the trigger, he gets distracted by a noise and forgets.
There are the two boys who steal four bottles of speed with plans to sell the pills slowly over the next several days as they escape Knockemstiff to San Francisco. Instead, they take nearly all the pills themselves and spend the whole time driving in circles around Knockemstiff. If you’re born in the hollow, there is no escape.
The stories are interconnected and span over a period of about thirty years. Several characters reappear in later stories. The first story is about a cowardly boy witnessing his father almost beat a man to death and then, forced on by his father, beats up the man’s son. He goes to bed listening to the first words of praise that he’s ever heard from his father. In the final story, the father, although still feared by his family, is now so weak that he is totally dependent upon an oxygen tank. The son, having hit rock bottom, is now a recovering alcoholic working a minimum wage job. By the end of the story, the father nearly decides to give up the oxygen so that he can finally die and the son desperately wants a drink. However, by the end, they decide to keep on their respective path. That counts as a victory and a happy ending in Knockemstiff.
I can keep going and going about this collection. It’s not for everyone. If you occasionally like your literature to go down like homespun moonshine rotgut, this is for you. It is the best example of such that I have ever encountered.
Don’t say that I didn’t warn you.