Title: The Heavenly Table
Rating: 3 Stars
Pollock’s short story collection, Knockemstiff, is one of my favorites. His writing style has been called either Southern Ohio Gothic or Hillbilly Gothic. The characters that populate his stories are usually poor, uneducated, brutal, addicted, and are just trying to make through the day.
This is a full length novel, set in the year 1917. The United States has just entered WWI. A town called Meade has gotten much larger as a result of an army base that has been built there.
The main characters are three brothers: Cane, Cob, and Chimney Jewitt. They are absolutely dirt poor, barely having enough to eat. They travel with their father, Pearl, in search of any menial work that they can find. The three boys are bound to their father. Their only relief from their desolate existence is a dime store novel that the oldest brother, Cane, reads aloud to the other two. The story is called, The Life and Times of Bloody Bill Bucket. He’s read it enough times that all can recite passages from memory.
One day, Pearl keels over dead. The brothers, free at last, debate upon what to do. They decide to steal their employer’s horses and take off to Canada. While trying to steal the horse, they semi-accidentally kill the employer. Now, under the threat of law, they decide that they’re committed to their path and commence to robbing banks, hoping to score a large enough stake to make their life in Canada easier.
At the same time, there is a second plot line involving Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler. They’ve been together for many years and over that period, managed not only to scrape by but saved up a little something for their future. Ellsworth has recently been swindled of those life savings. Nearly simultaneous to that, their only son has discovered alcohol and has found that he has quite a taste for it. He has now run off. So, the Fiddler’s, now in middle age on a nearly barren farm stead, are facing up to having to start over from scratch.
As you can imagine, these two plots eventually do intersect.
The first half or so of the novel is a thrill ride. It’s classic Pollock. The brothers quickly become the most wanted men in the state and various posses set out after him, most of which reach grisly ends. The violence is graphic and explicit. The humor is black as night. I liken reading fiction of this genre to putting your finger in an electric socket. Jolts of raw energy flash off of the page. Characters are introduced, are fleshed out, and are then mercilessly murdered in some gruesome manner.
I was settling in for a wild, satisfying ride. Alas, sometime after the midpoint of the book, the three brothers actually end up in Meade. There, they settle down and try to blend in. In so doing, the action drags. What started out as a thrill ride ended with barely a whimper.
There’s a couple of problems here.
There were just too many characters introduced and Pollock ended up trying to keep at least some kind of plot line for each. Therefore, we end up with an owner of a bar that is actually a brutal serial murderer. We have an upper class army soldier with dreams of dying in battle, suffering from his attraction to men and ultimately becomes a victim of the serial murderer. We have a sanitation inspector, whose primary job is to measure the effluvia levels in people’s outhouses and is tortured by his strict religious teachings and by the size of his enormous penis. We have a black gigolo from Detroit, thrown out by his last paramour, trying to find his next place of repose.
There’s just too much going on, especially for the relatively small size of the novel. It almost seemed as if Pollock had run out of gas on his main plots and was introducing additional characters and stories just to pad it. In fact, you could probably pull out some of the set pieces and create short stories out of them.
It could very well be that Pollock’s strength is short stories. I did enjoy his other novel, The Devil All The Time, but from what I remember it seemed to suffer from the same over adornment.
He is a master of the short story, but he still needs to work on his long game a bit more.