Thursday, August 9, 2012

Review: Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock

Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock

This collection of literary short stories revolves around the town of Knockemstiff, Ohio. "The hollow" is a downtrodden area full of drug addicts and inbred hillbillies, full of the violence and depression which comes with true want. Pollock's prose is skilled, his gaze unflinching as he looks on the existence of the people of Knockemstiff, from the mentally deficient to the speed freaks, to those one step from escaping the circle of poverty, emotional and material. He doesn't shy away from the violence of a father against his wife and children, the damage inflicted by a twisted mother on her child, the father on the son. He points out the hypocrisy of his characters' mindset as they condemn those around them, even as they make their own damning choices; he highlights their powerlessness to change their fortunes. Each word builds to draw these people to their inevitable place in their little world, the trap fate and circumstance has laid for them.

Overall, it’s a solid collection. Pollock is a strong writer who gets his point across and is unremitting with his truth for Knockemstiff. Unremitting is the word for this collection. But the author's style, for all the grit in these stories, the raw truth of drug addicts and families rotting from the outside in and the inside out, remains cold. There is no sense of love for his characters, save perhaps a few of the children. All fates seem sealed, by circumstance and thought. The arc of their lives is predetermined by the content of their childhoods, and the struggle seems ceremonial. Pollock is not misrepresenting reality, but I feel there is a missing touch of compassion, not in content, but in tone. As nearly every character makes motions, intentions, toward change, toward fighting the current of their lives, the reader never believes they will escape and only a handful of characters seem undeserving of their fate. Pollock leaves it to the reader to infer the tragedy infused in every moment of life in the hollow.

I usually dislike comparing works by different authors, but as I was reading Knockemstiff I found myself reminded of several pieces in John Mantooth's debut collection published earlier this year. (My review for The Crow's Caw) Though Shoebox Train Wreck is a more loose collection, featuring a diverse set of characters and stories framed in more diverse forms than Pollock's, they both address the truth of rural poverty, and the quiet horror of much of life. What struck me was the touch of beauty Mantooth brought his pieces, the gracefulness in the depiction of the sorrow and deep-seated heartbreak in his character's existence. The first half of Knockemstiff is almost monochromatic, damning and unforgiving. There is no trace of humor or forgiveness, its compassion reserved for children with no hope of escape. The second half moderates this sense, but only slightly, and his characters are forever pulled back to the hollow and the slow death waiting there.

That said, even with its coldness, Knockemstiff is well-executed, with almost flawless writing. I can't say if I'd pick up another of Pollock's work, and though I hold little affection for this collection, I cannot help but respect his statement and workmanship. I reiterate, it is exceptionally well-written.


  1. Nice review, Kate! It was a very bleak book. It resonated with me a lot since I've known people like that in the sticks here who lack hope for themselves or their families because they've accepted (or made excuses for themselves, or just don't know other way) that the circumstances in their lives are their given lot and no amount of struggle to overcome it will be fruitful. Really looking forward to checking out Mantooth's collection, too!

  2. Thank you, Lee! I suspect Shoebox Train Wreck will be right up your alley. ;-)

  3. Thanks so much for the mention! I'm not sure I deserve the comparison, but will certainly take it! Pollock is one of the best. And by the way, K.E., out of all the reviews, SBTW received, I thought you got to the heart of the book best. Really appreciate that.

  4. Thank you, sir! I try very hard to do a book justice in my reviews.

    You're more than welcome and I think the comparison is deserved--obviously. :-)