On the rainy night of March 18, the day that Donald Ray Pollock's book of short stories came out, about 14 months after his agent sold the collection to Doubleday, Pollock did a reading in Cincinnati at Joseph-Beth Booksellers.
"Knockemstiff" is a linked series of elegantly written stories that take place in a terrible small town in Ohio, where fat boys enjoy being dartboards and youngsters incesting in the woods are murdered, and many, many drugs are sold and consumed. (Something like Harmony Korine meets Raymond Carver.)
"What was great was that he didn't realize the New York Times had written this incredible review," said Barb Hudson, the store's events coordinator. (The store had advance copies of the New York Times Book Review where the review was to appear on March 23, the same day as a rave in this paper and a few days after another in USA Today.)
"Do you want a couple copies for your scrapbook?" she said she asked Pollock.
"Well, yeah, thanks, that'd be great," Pollock said. Had he had a chance to read it? "Oh, no," he said. "I'll probably pull off the side of the road and read it on the way home."
About 20 folks were at the reading.
"Love him! Love him. Love him, love him, love him," Hudson said. "He's magnificent. He is off the charts. Every one of our booksellers, they have signed a testimony and put it up by his book."
On Thursday, March 20, he read at that store's outpost in Lexington, Ky.
"I've talked to people who are a lot more famous and a lot less nice," said Brooke Raby, that store's PR/events coordinator. (They even went out for a drink later that night and talked about A.M. Homes and local government.)
About eight people attended that reading.
Raby looked up the store's sales numbers. "Well, the book's not done great, honestly," she said. "I do think that it's going to be kind of a sleeper."
For most of its first week on the market, "Knockemstiff" was the top-selling book on Amazon.com in the category "Literature and Fiction / Short Stories / United States," until sometime on the 25th, when it was bumped to No. 2 by the new Jhumpa Lahiri collection, a position it held through its second week. And for the majority of its first week, it easily cracked the top 200 in books overall.
That translates into sales figures that are respectable but modest. As of March 30, according to Nielsen BookScan, which counts about 75% of books sold, he moved 2,000 copies.
Doubleday bought the book at auction, according to Pollock's agent, Richard Pine, who put the sale in the mid-five-figure range.
"My thinking was," Pollock said, "if Doubleday gets their money back, then maybe they would consider the next book. But if they don't get their money back . . . I didn't want anyone to lose any money on it. I still don't know if they'll get their money back!
"People have told me, 'Hey, you don't need to worry about that,' " Pollock said. "That's not a lot of money for [Doubleday]. Just because I'm looking at it from a viewpoint of a factory worker, well, you know, if you lose a few thousand dollars, to me that's a lot of money. But to them it isn't a big loss."
Pine is feeling good about the whole process. "This is part of what America is about -- the hidden geniuses who are out there, who occasionally see the light of day," he said. "I think it's one of the great publishing stories I've heard, and I've been at this a long time. I just love it. Guys like this aren't supposed to be writing terrific works of fiction."
Leaving the mill
Pollock is a 53-year-old bad sleeper who smokes only outside, or up in his attic office, at home in Chillicothe, Ohio. He met his wife in a car wash in 1988. He quit his union job at a paper mill not long ago, after more than three decades.
"I never really dreamed I'd get out of the mill when I started," he said. "I told my wife, 'I'm gonna give this thing five years and try my hardest and see what happens. And then I thought, well, if I gave it five good years and nothing did happen, I can still say, when I'm laying in the nursing home or whatever, at least I gave it a shot."
The five-year plan went fantastically. His story collection, and perhaps part of the novel he's working on ("a serial killer/coming-of-age book"), will serve as a master's thesis at Ohio State University.
It was almost a year ago when his Doubleday editor, Gerry Howard, presented the then-recently acquired "Knockemstiff" to the marketing department.
"It's a great story, yeah," said John Pitts, the publisher's marketing director. "That he was working the same plant where his grandfather worked, recovering alcoholic, all this stuff. It's a great publicity hook to go out with."
In the 1980s, the publishing industry began to actively create literary "it" boys. The prototypes were Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis. Then came the intellectual set: Dave Eggers and the Jonathans: Franzen, Safran Foer and Lethem.
By the mid-00s, the boys became as monotonous as snowflakes. It became a harder task for marketers to sell and resell these increasingly similar semi-sensations. Ben Kunkel (graduate of Deep Springs College and Harvard); Dana Vachon (a banker); Joshua Ferris (once worked at an ad agency!); Jeff Hobbs (Yale '02); and now, Charles Bock (child of Vegas pawnbrokers -- but a graduate of Bennington College).
With the rise of the memoir and the roman a clef over the last decade, publishers learned that the best character to sell is the author.
"Everybody, you know, mentions I worked in a factory for 32 years," Pollock said. "But I don't think they really dwell on it. And it seems like with the reviews, they had been focusing on the book. Which, you know, is a good thing."
He did not end up feeling like a freak in a cage. "Sort of like the elephant man or something?" he said. "But fortunately they all turned to look at the book when it came time to review."
He's not a guy who really feels comfortable being talked about. (And getting photographed is not a blast for him.)
"I'm not really sure about all that stuff," Pollock said. "I guess it's like if you've got a gimmick, and that's, you know, what they try to use to get some attention or whatever. But I dunno. One of my biggest inspirations was William Gay; he's a Southern writer. And I remember back before I started writing, when his first book came out" -- the 1999 novel "The Long Home" -- I read about this guy who's in his early 50s and was a carpenter and hung drywall all his life. And I thought, wow. There I was, working at the paper mill, and it hadn't really occurred to me that maybe it's not too late yet. And so, you know, I'm OK with them using it. It does feel a little weird at times. Well, it's almost like the focus is a little more on maybe how I got here than it is on the book. But then at the same time, maybe there'll be some people out there who'll think the same things I thought when I read about William Gay: 'Maybe it's not too late for me to do the same thing.' "
"Three-point-five million people would be tempted to buy Cormac McCarthy or Richard Price, the big new literary novel," Pitts said. "And that's the universe and it's our job to make the most of books like 'Knockemstiff.' Clearly we're not going to get to that point. But people always talk about the decline of American publishing. I feel like we have a very vital buzz going on here. Compared to French publishing, or the U.K., I feel we publish a lot of extraordinary writers. And if a guy like Don Pollock can get published, and with decent numbers, I feel like that's a positive thing."
Pollock went out West before publication. He met Amazon.com book-buyers in Seattle. He had lunch with Powell's book buyers in Portland.
"I don't think I'd make a very good businessman," Pollock said. "I was thinking, 'Well, you just write the book, then that's it.' " His agent even got him to start a (rarely updated) blog, even though he isn't good with computers.
He will join Chuck Palahniuk for a tour this spring. Palahniuk, with his big cult following, has also blurbed the book, done interviews with the author, and sent e-mails to his fan list.
"It does help that Gerry edits both gentlemen," said Pitts.
Paluhniak's readings are legendary. "I believe he's handing out blowup dolls this time around," Pitts said.
"A lot of it is word of mouth. It has to catch fire. No amount of marketing can really guarantee that. Thank God too, right?"