Knocked Stiff

Don’t worry, I’m going to post about books I do like too.
“Knockemstiff” by Donald Ray Pollock, is a collection of short stories that take place in and around Knockemstiff, Ohio. There actually is such a place, though it is essentially a ghost town now. In all honesty, if even a fraction of Pollock’s stories about the place are accurate, I’d pakc up and leave it too. Head off to Cleveland, or New York, or Timbuktu, or just about anywhere else.
These stories are not “Prairie Home Companion” material. They’re closer to “Tobacco Road” only worse.

Everybody in Knockemstiff is a drunk, an addict, a head case, a criminal, a loser, or some combination thereof. There are no heroes. A few townsfolk you’ll meet in your wanderings around Knockemstiff:

Jake: Jake ran into the woods to escape the draft at the beginning of World War II, and during his time hiding in the woods around town his mind began to disintegrate. Now he’s old, still living in the woods, surviving on what he can catch or scrounge, supplemented with a few grocery items he trades arrowheads for at the general store. A harmless, sad old soul, but what happens when he stumbles upon a brother and sister doing the nasty in the creek is rather worrisome.

Lard McComis: We never learn Lard’s real name, if he even has one. All we know about him is he’s a fat, slow-witted teenager who carries around a Nancy Sinatra album and calls Nancy his girlfriend. His main hobby is getting his friends to throw darts at his monstrous stomach.

Daniel: Daniel runs away from home and hitches a ride with a trucker who calls himself Cowboy Roy. This story is especially fun because we, the readers, can spot the warning signs right from the beginning, but Daniel, drunk on whiskey and hopping on speed provided by Cowboy Roy, is blissfully oblivious to the danger he is in.

Sharon and Joan: Niece and aunt, respectively. Sharon occasionally goes into town with Joan, acting as bait so that the older, fatter Joan can pick up men, which she apparently drugs and takes home with her. It is ominously hinted that some of these men are not seen again, but Sharon is not particularly concerned.

Del: Del is the champion loser in this town of losers. To enumerate the various ways he demonstrates his loserdom would fill a book by itself. Suffice it to say he will take any drug he can find, his wife is a mentally retarded woman who carries around a lot of fish sticks in her pocketbook, and his only good shirt, the one he deems appropriate to wear to a funeral, has “Troy’s Bait Shop” stenciled on the back of it.

“Knockemstiff” is definitely not for everybody, and if you do a little Googling, you can find some pretty “angry literary snob” reviews of it. But I love the stories for their sly, dark humor, their frightening realism, and the fact that Pollock, an ordinary guy who worked in a paper mill for 35 years and had only just started to write, scored such a commercial success with a book of short stories in a market where short-story collections aren’t supposed to sell. You go, guy!

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