Donald Ray Pollock: A Review of Knockenstiff

thnlsypg92In my research of late into Country noir I came across the name Donald Ray Pollock. Born in 1954 and raised in Knockemstiff, Ohio, Pollock has lived his entire adult life in Chillicothe, Ohio, where he worked at the Mead Paper Mill as a laborer and truck driver until age 50, when he enrolled in the English program at Ohio State University. While there, Doubleday published his debut short story collection, Knockemstiff, and the New York Times regularly posted his election dispatches from southern Ohio throughout the 2008 campaign. The Devil All the Time, his first novel, was published in 2011. His work has appeared in various literary journals, including Epoch, Sou’wester, Granta, Third Coast, River Styx, The Journal, Boulevard, Tin House, and PEN America. His newest book, a novel called The Heavenly Table, was published by Doubleday on July 12th, 2016.1 Find him on his website: http://donaldraypollock.net/

Author of three works Knockemstiff, The Devil All the Time, and The Heavenly Table 9780767928304he seems to fall into that lineage of which draws from the likes of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Harry Crews, William Gay and Daniel Woodrell, among others; and, yet, his raw power and nihilistic vision seems undaunted in its ferocious and daemonic power and depths. I just finished his collection of short stories Knockemstiff, which awakened in me that sense of the grotesque and satiric strain of those comic fatalists of horror and noir that blend that dark realism of the mean streets with the unique flavor of region and place. One knows this is caricature, not in the sense of defamation, but in the sense that each story brings out the anamorphic distortion that is slowly clarified by many readings and rereading’s. These are characters that live in that alternate realm of the Real, the daemons of certain forces that insert their voices and their lives into that dark loam of life that inhabits the cracks and gaps of our lives. The people that emerge out of the black abyss of Pollack’s daemonic America, this slice of life world of the lost, the forgotten, the poverty stricken, the lonely and lame, the creatures of an earthly hell who have never known there might be something else out there, because for them there is no there is. These are the creatures of nightmare rather than life, the ones who never attained the human, but for whatever reason came out of the wilds to remain feral and raw, violent and full of rage; and, yet, at time full of that dark longing for something, something they know must be there, something maybe just in the next love bout, death choke, dream world of escape that they just don’t see possible and feel they must be guilty of some dark stain and undeserving of such realms beyond. Then again, most of them don’t believe there is a beyond, but dip from that place of the abyss within that harbors no transcension but plenty of the raging beast of the feral mind unleashed and ready to devour the world.

If you’ve not read this work then please, by all means, get it: Knockemstiff. I’m going to proceed with my survey and assume those who enjoy such fare will pick up a copy, otherwise I’m going to be digging into the meat of these stories so be forewarned. I’m not going to go through every short story in this collection, just a few of those that hit me square between the eyes and left their pain on me. Remember, I’ve said I’m going to reveal a little of that raw measure of greatness that is the Pollack’s daemonic energy. Welcome to Knockemstiff, Ohio, a place full of menace and defiance, anger and madness; a place where the lonely and the dammed, the lost and the depraved all come home to roost.

Real Life

Take the story Real Life, a story of innocence lost, a tale about a young man whose father teaches him the power of violence and mayhem, where the law of the jungle has replaced the constitution and people trigger despicable acts just by breathing. A Tale where a father teaches a boy just what it means to hurt another human being, to show what judgment without mercy is through utter hate and devastation. In this world everyone is guilty of something, even of living; and acts of violence become the last passionate effort of the dammed to tell the world fuck you; it’s knowing that we – the readers are complicit, that we too harbor such powers of violence within us. That anyone does. That the human lot is this thing, this ugly drive of predation and death at the central core of the inhuman, and that our animal inheritance is this utter craving for violence and nothing else. There comes a moment when the boy must do as his Father has done — and, fight; must beat the unholy shit out of another boy, the son of a man who affronted his father and got the ass kicked out of him for his efforts. The boy does it and makes his father proud, but something changes in the boy, something is born in him that day. Afterwards when he’s at home curling up in the comfort of his bed he tastes the other boy’s blood on his knuckles:

A sweet, salty taste stung my busted lip, ran over my tongue. It was the other boy’s blood, still on my hands.

Something about the taste of blood on his tongue, the tangy sweat and salt of earth and the juice of the body’s origins awakens the beast in the boy, awakens that craving for violence; for predation, — so that listening to his parents humping away in sexual ecstasy and plain bestial pleasure next door to his room he begins lapping the blood off his knuckles:

The dried flakes dissolved in my mouth, turning my spit to syrup. Even after I’d swallowed all the blood, I kept licking my hands. I tore at the skin with my teeth. I wanted more. I would always want more.” (KL 179)

It’s this craving, this unquenchable desire and appetite at the core of the inhuman and our Universe rising up like some unstoppable force that will drive all these dammed souls into death and that weave of darkness that shapes its malevolent spirit in us even now…

DYNAMITE HOLE

In this tale we meet a draft dodger whose old man’s pissed about his son’s decision not to be patriotic: “Jake, you goddamn chickenshit, I won’t be able to face people around here you run away,” he told me, but I left that night anyway.” (KL 202) He hides himself outside Knockemstiff, Ohio where most of the stories take place. It’s a tale of initiation, but not the kind that brings one into society, but rather one that sends society running and screaming from such dark forces as he represents. Enough said, you’ll have to read the tale. I’ll only give a little piece of his mind:

Hell, how could I have told that old man, the way they were drafting and killing boys left and right, that I wasn’t afraid of the fighting nearly as much as I was scared of leaving the holler? (KL 205)

It’s this sense that the holler, that  Knockemstiff, Ohio itself is circumscribed with some emotional electric fence, that the people living in this hell-hole on earth are prisoners, creatures bound to the darkness of its feral enterprise; and, that most of them are more scared of the Outside world than they are of the violent ways of their neighbors next door. They’d rather face the known dangers of physical violence, than the unknown dangers of the Unknown…

Knockemstiff

In fact this tale is just about such a young man who is more afraid to exert the energy to leave Knockemstiff that he let’s the girl he love’s get away from him with a boy who is leaving. It’s a tale that brings our AWOL confederate back into the picture, a husband and wife traveling through, taking pictures, a gas station, and a young man who lives in a dingy old rusty bucket of a trailer out back of a store. It’s about a boy who’d rather live with his fantasy girl, than do what it takes to get the real McCoy…


As one character will say it, “When people in town said inbred, what they really meant was lonely.” (Hair’s Breath) And, it is this loneliness, the sense that the people of Knockemstiff, Ohio have been cut off from the rest of the world. They seem to be part of some dark experiment, as if the water or the air they breath is eroded and poisoned by some malevolent spirit or biochemical disaster. These people seem more like ghosts haunting the American Apocalypse, the denizens of some chaotic surreal, nightmarish landscape where evil is not so much a person as a place, what the dark Gnostics of the Qlippothic abyss or kenoma – the place of emptiness or killing call the deadly planet, Anareta. Cormac McCarthy in his own daemonic work,  Blood Meridean  speaks of the earth as a killing machine; as Anareta — the members of Glanton’s Gang are portrayed as sleepers who “slept with their alien hearts beating in the sand like pilgrims exhausted upon the face of the planet Anareta, clutched to a namelessness wheeling in the night”.3 This namelessness is the Milky Way, the Wheel of Fortune or Fate, the place of the kenoma: the Great Emptiness or Desolation, where the Law of Necessity are Heimarmene rules; a place of ignorance and deficiency, controlled by fate and destiny – and ruled over by the evil archons of the inverted Tree of Life.  As such it is a prison in which the spirit or sparks are trapped, in exile from its their true home above.4 This is Knockemstiff where everyone is exiled from their true home… and, yet, in the secular version of this working there is no true home, no return ticket, no transcendence, no heavenly paradise; all there is is that there is no there is no place beyond, only this round, this eternal round of the grinding wheels of cosmic fate endlessly returning us to this slum world of hate and crime, delusion and delirium; a place where there is no hope, and even less than hope —only the great amor fati, the love of fate that finds us time and again in this hell-hole at the backwaters of the galactic sump.

In Pills we meet a couple of would-be thieves who have a plan. They think their going to make the great escape, a jail-break from Knockemstiff. But with the best laid plans of mice and men (as the cliché has it) nothing works out as planned, and all we discover is a couple of losers that are going nowhere fast but down, down, down… As one of the characters tells us:

Without another word, I stepped across the drainage ditch and out into the soft barren field. I pulled the bottle of pills out of my sock, stuck them in my pocket. Route 50 was two miles away, and I started walking toward it. Mud stuck to my boots like wet concrete, and every few steps I had to stop to shake it off. Looking up, I saw the red blinking lights of an airliner, miles above me, heading west. I’d never been on a plane, but I imagined big-shot bastards on vacation, movie stars with beautiful lives. (KL 818)

It’s like that old song by the Eagles Hotel California:

Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
“Relax, ” said the night man,
“We are programmed to receive.
You can check-out any time you like,
But you can never leave! (Lyrics)

These are people who know their lives are circumscribed, cut of in a circle of hell, a place just this side of paradise; a paradise that others seem to enjoy, but that we who exist here in Knockemstiff can only dream about but never ever find… a place where everything is promised, but nothing is given. This is the bottom of the world and the place where even despair despair’s

One wonders what curse has been laid at the foot of these poor souls to deserve this fate. Is it just the fatal luck of the draw, the wrong cards chosen, a bad hand dealt; or, something else… can it even have an interpretation, or is this something outside decipherment, religious or secular?

In GIGANTHOMACHY we find a couple good old boys playing with fire and ants. In this tale of hero worship, sex and incest, and perversion of the mind and soul we find a boy whose been force into submission to be everything but what he is, and most of all that’s what he wants:

Outside, a thousand throbbing crickets urged me on, but I stood there a long time trying to decide. “Teddy,” I finally said, pretending it was true. “I just want to be Teddy.” (KL 925)

In a world where we’re commoditized, sold to the highest bidder, forced to school, work, marriage, raising children, etc., the one thing we seem to lose sight of is our own actual dream, the lost dream of becoming and doing and being what we are, not what someone forces us to be according to some social role. So we end up blank in the end, wonder where it all went, and why we’ve come to this great estate of nothingness…

I’m only going to relate one last story. Honolulu. The tale of Howard Bowman, a man who has worked his ass off his natural born life, provided for his family and come to the point where for whatever unknown reason as contracted some horrible dementia that is in the second stage of its minor exploitation of his memory, life, and existence. Howard is slowly losing his mind in pieces of forgetfulness. His wife Peg is with him, his daughter ( a lucky one?) is off somewhere (school?) away. Peg is trying to get him to remember things, anything will do, anything. She’s set him a task of looking at an old picture from the place he worked in Knockemstiff, a Mill. It’s lined up with all the guys he worked with for over twenty years before he retired. But for the life of him he can’t remember a blessed soul on that picture. What he does remember is flotsam and jetsam of his sex life and exploits that seem to be happily triggered by things he sees here and there in the house. Even his own wife Peg is a stranger to him. Watching her take off to the store he wonders who the woman is whose taken his wife’s vehicle. He thinks the neighbors are spies and crooks, that their out to steal everything he’s got and kill them like an old ground hog they killed hanging on a maple tree swinging back and forth outside his window. Talking to her daughter, Carrie who seems not to understand the severity of the situation she says:

“Carrie, you don’t understand,” Peg finally says, stubbing her cigarette out. “Your daddy’s second-stage already. He don’t even know me half the time.” Standing up, she tries to smooth the wrinkles out of her long corduroy dress. “No, all he talks about is Hawaii,” Peg sighs, looking out the window as the evening sun dives like a flaming bird into that other world. And just like that, for one brief beautiful moment, as the crashing rays turn the kitchen a bright blood-red, she forgets everything. (KL 2501)

It’s in that last sentence that makes Pollack the master he is, following in the wake of Flannery O’Connor he’s captured the essence of that grand shock of the spark alighting out of nowhere that suddenly brings an epiphany of awakening into forgetfulness…

Yet, her forgetfulness is of the passage into the sublime, while her husbands is just the opposite the demon riddled paranoia of the dammed whose only hope is despair and nothing else.

Being of a dark mindset myself it was a pleasure reading Donald’s book, but I can see it’s not for the squeamish among us. The language is raw and truthful to life lived; no hold’s bar. It captures the state of the dammed and the lost. It’s not a religious book, nor is its language like McCarthy a metaphysical pursuit of alternatives by any means. Far from it — Pollack’s reached down into his own depths and forged his own amalgam of hermetic magic to bring one the power of his homeland, give voice to the people of the earth as he hears them, as he knows them; and, as he is known by them. There is this sense of mutual contamination in these hard words, as if Donald Ray Pollock had unlocked the dead from their dark cage of night and aloud them a brief respite to tell their tales to the living. As if the words haunting this imaginary town on the edge of nothingness were the place we all for one reason or another end up. It’s a place like almost any country town in the U.S.A., where people have been forgotten, silenced, left out of the equation. A people at rock bottom living on the rot gut edge of things without a dime or a prayer, not even each other; but instead are all alone in their cells bleeding hate and spite, and most of all desperation at having been thrown into this killing machine without out a paddle to swim their way back out again. No Holy Book’s going to save these people, no preacher man, no guiding light… No these are people of the kenoma — the people of a spiritual wasteland that is full of nothing but dry bones, bleached and without hope of resurrection now or in the kingdom to come. Why? Because they know that kingdom is fake just like they are… nothing’s real in this sub-realm of illusion and mayhem, not even the dreams; only the nightmares have substance and substantiality… and they keep repeating themselves over and over and over again. This is the land of darkness without promise, a place where the lonely go to forget themselves and everyone else…  it’s best summed up in the story Fighting, where an alcoholic young man is trying to quit, having joined AA, and  begins thinking about things and sums up in a sentence the feeling of the whole book:

A lot of people get the wrong impression, think there’s something romantic or tragic about hitting bottom.

Maybe that’s the point of the book: a book where there is no point, no moral pounding, thumping, or preaching; only the truth about being at the bottom of the proverbial barrel, caught between a rock and a hard place with no place to go but up; and up isn’t in one’s vocabulary, at least not for the losers and misfits, killers, thieves, scoundrels, and lost souls of Knockemstiff, Ohio.


  1. Donald Ray Pollock’s Official Site: Bio http://donaldraypollock.net/bio-4/
  2. Donald Ray Pollock. Knockemstiff (Kindle Location 2506). Random House, Inc..
  3. Cormac Mccarthy. Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West (Kindle Locations 803-804). Modern Library. Kindle Edition.
  4. Mundik, Petra. A Bloody and Barbarous God: The Metaphysics of Cormac McCarthy. (Univ. New Mexico Press, 2016)

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