“KNOCKEMSTIFF” is a powerful, remarkable, exceptional book that is very hard to read. Donald Ray Pollock’s first collection of stories is dark, twisted, stuffed like the back seat of an old car with stained clothing, ugly sex and too many drugs. Pollock grew up here, in the real town of Knockemstiff, Ohio, which appears on MapQuest.com as the intersection of two skinny roads in the middle of a mostly blank page. As Pollock describes it, it’s less than a town -- just a dip in the landscape, where the policemen “wouldn’t even climb out of the cruiser anymore, just turned on the flashing light as they sped on through the holler.” Every store has closed, except for one small market and a rundown bar. The stink from the paper mill in Chillicothe permeates. Pollock’s characters live in a rusted, broken trailer or an abandoned school bus or a house with a hole in the floor instead of a toilet. They drink, pop pills, snort Bactine, fire up the crack pipe, fight over steroids or bologna sandwiches. The women will get in the back seat for almost anybody. The fathers are all disappointed, and every child is just one smart-aleck remark away from permanent disability:
“The old man walked in a circle around Daniel, scratching his chin and looking the boy over as if he were a prize shoat at the county fair. Finally he stopped and pronounced, ‘You need you a . . . haircut, boy.’
“Daniel, his heart sinking like a stone, took a deep breath and resigned himself to the scissors his mom kept in the kitchen drawer. But then, in a surprise move, the old man whipped out the long knife instead and shoved his son down in a chair. . . .
“It was like being in the electric chair, Daniel would think later, though without the pleasure of dying, or even a last meal. But with specks of his blood splattered all over the corn bread, and hair floating in the soup beans, who was hungry anyway?”
Pollock knows this terrain. He dropped out of high school and worked at the paper mill for 32 years. He knows these people, what they want and think and feel, and he takes us there without flinching. Broken noses, missing teeth, bowels that let loose in Wal-Mart. Sharon, who pimps for her fat Aunt Joan. A mother who wants her son to pretend to murder her, night after night. In clear, direct prose written in the vernacular of the place, he manages to transcend the scum, revealing the beauty in these unhappy lives: “The wind picked up, rocking the old car back and forth. Flakes of snow blew through the cracks and swirled above me. Reaching down, I picked up the tiny skull of a wretched little bird. I held it in my hand for a long time. It seemed as if everything I’d ever done in my life, the good and the bad, rested there. Then I slipped it, as thin and fragile as an egg, into my mouth.”
Pollock writes about his characters with intelligence and empathy, despite their desperation and grotesqueness. He makes no judgments, and that’s one of his great strengths. We are who we are, his characters say -- we have regrets, we do bad things, and lest you, the reader, start feeling superior, we’re here to remind you what you could be. The stories’ similarities -- teenagers doing drugs until their brains are fried, overweight women taking care of their damaged men, violent husbands and fathers -- collectively show us we’re all the same, no matter where we begin. Just one stumble, one lost opportunity, and we might end up in Knockemstiff.
“He who holds hope for the human condition is a fool,” wrote Albert Camus in 1951. He had a point; there’s no likely solution for war, poverty, neglect or cruelty. However, in Pollock’s world, hope for humankind is there in the minutiae: in the cigarette a man leaves behind for a woman who has none, in the straw shoved into the bottle of booze so the old stroke victim can still have a drink, in the plate of biscuits left outside at night for a violent, crazy son.
Geraldine, strung out, living in a group home, carries cooked fish sticks in the bottom of her plastic purse, “cold and greasy, feathered with gray lint.” She hands them out to people she cares about and who are in search of some kind of sustenance. The fish sticks may be disgusting, but they are visible acts of love, small tokens of redemption.
William, a skinny little boy with bruises on his arms and scars on his legs, prepares to run into his house to keep his father from killing his mother. His playmate, Teddy, the narrator of “Giganthomachy,” terrified but wanting to help, asks if there is anything he can do. “ ‘Theodore,’ William said, his face suddenly breaking into a crazy grin, ‘we’re gods, remember? . . . [W]e can do anything.’ Then he turned and charged bravely at the house, . . . disappearing through the back door.”
Dirt poor, frightened, both a sadist and his mother’s champion, William embodies Pollock’s kind of hero. In his small act of love and self-sacrifice lies the hope of the world.