This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a new site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. Click here to visit Bloom, where Donald Ray Pollock will be the featured author throughout the week.
The rolling hills of Southern Ohio may not seem, at first, a likely place for serious mischief and mayhem, but the fiction of Donald Ray Pollock makes one think the devil himself is tainting the groundwater.
The eighteen linked stories of Pollock’s first book, Knockemstiff, published in 2008 when the author was 53, tornado through this town of the same name — a “holler” of four hundred endangered souls plus a couple of general stores, bars, a church, and a ballfield. The action of Pollock’s second book, the 2011 novel The Devil All the Time, ranges into West Virginia and farther afield along American interstates and back roads, but its heart is still Knockemstiff and its surroundings, where a paper mill sulfurs the air and poor folk live in trailers with open sewage. Residents are related to at least half of everyone else. An OxyContin addict in the story “Blessed” describes the view on his way out of town to a clinic where his wife sells her blood: “The damp, gray sky covered southern Ohio like the skin of a corpse. The landscape was the seemingly endless row of squat metal buildings full of cheap junk for sale: carpet remnants, used furniture, country crafts.”
I understand left-behind towns where agriculture and some rough industry barely support a few of the luckier ones, but my rural Maine upbringing in no way prepared me for the depravity and squalor of Knockemstiff. What’s more, the death-skinned sky and rotten-egg air turn out to be sterile compared to the insides of people’s heads.
The fictional Knockemstiff is based on a real town of the same name, where Pollock grew up. “It was claustrophobic for me,” Pollock said in a 2011 Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross. “I was one of those kids — I was always unsatisfied. I always wanted to be somebody else and somewhere else. And so from a very early age, you know, I was thinking about escaping the holler.”
Indeed most characters in Pollock’s work want to get the hell out; but fear of the unknown and of being alone knock ‘em back. In “Dynamite Hole,” a mentally damaged man has lived on scraps in the woods since escaping the Vietnam draft decades earlier. He still fights his disapproving father in his head, admitting something curious, provincial, and utterly believable: “How could I have told that old man, the way they were drafting and killing boys left and right, that I was afraid of the fighting nearly as much as I was scared of leaving the holler?” In the title story, the clerk at the general store says about an old flame toward whom he still feels tender and who’s about to leave town with a lunkhead named Boo Nesser, “Ever since she started putting out for the boys, she’s been looking for someone to take her away. I wish I could’ve been the one, I really do, but I don’t figure I’ll ever leave the holler, not even for Tina. I’ve lived here all my life, like a toad stool stuck to a rotten log, never even wanting to go into town if I can keep from it.”
Donald Ray Pollock’s parents ran a small general store in Knockemstiff, where he worked as a teenager before dropping out of high school at 17 to work at a meatpacking plant. Not long after that he took off for Florida, where he worked at a nursery for a few months, until his father called to say he could get him a job at the paper mill in Chillicothe, just 13 miles from Knockemstiff. It was a union job with benefits, and Pollock knew he wasn’t likely to find anything better, so he returned. He settled in at the mill, married and divorced twice, had a daughter, filed for bankruptcy, and often drank too much. After about 14 years, he looked around and saw that the other guys who’d been hired at the same time had stacked up some accomplishments — homes and cars and families. “When I got sober [in 1986] I was living in this little, very small apartment above the garage. It was about the size of a hotel room and I’d been living there for about four or five years. I owned a black and white TV that my sister had given me and I had this old ’76 Chevy that had the whole side of it smashed in. And that was it.” He wasn’t jealous of his friends, but he still felt like a failure.
In his 30s, Pollock decided to go to college, earning a degree in English from Ohio University. He didn’t take any writing workshops then, even though the fantasy of being an author sometimes lit up the back of his mind. When Pollock was 45, his father retired from the paper mill. Seeing that leaving the mill job meant the end of his father’s working life unsettled Pollock and reignited his desire to try writing stories: “I just decided I had to try something else. Some other way to spend the rest of my life.”
His self-education in fiction writing began with typing out stories he admired by authors like Hemingway, Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, Richard Yates, and Denis Johnson. In this way, elements of craft became visible. He submitted his pieces to The Journal, the literary magazine published by the English Department of Ohio State University, and connected with Michelle Herman, one of the editors, who eventually convinced Pollock to enroll in the MFA program there.
Erin McGraw, one of his teachers at OSU, noted in a New York Times profile by Charles McGrath that she consistently had a hard time reconciling the “gentle, extremely gracious person” in her classroom with the “dark, violent, often lurid” stories he wrote. Even after winning the 2009 PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship — awarded to “an exceptionally talented fiction writer whose debut work represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise” and carrying a $35,000 prize — Pollock evinces genuine modesty and shyness, both in his soft, twangy voice (lawg for log) and in photos. And Pollock’s successes have only continued: this year, he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship.
Though the back cover of Knockemstiff announces the stories as a “genuine entry into the literature of place,” what Pollock is writing is the literature of extremity. In another New York Times piece, this one profiling the town itself, Pollock says, “Knockemstiff had a reputation for being a really rough place. When I started writing, I took that and cranked it up a few amps.” Though the landmarks of Pollock’s world feel accurate down to the last junk heap, characters are pushed hard into dire circumstances with which they can only cope through extraordinary action. “Gothic hillbilly noir,” is how Pollock once put it, and indeed there is a traceable line of descent in his fiction from the Grimm Brothers’ original gothic tales.
In the acknowledgements to Knockemstiff, Pollock makes clear that the rapists, murders, whores, pedophiles, and junkies in his stories are of his own creation: “My family and our neighbors were good people who never hesitated to help someone in a time of need.” It’s desperate need — for food, companionship, recognition, a fix — that motivates Pollock’s people to both commit and endure gruesome deeds. One of the most tragic is Todd in “Schott’s Bridge.” Todd likes men, and he’s smart enough to know that his only chance at survival is to use the savings his grandmother left him and get out of town. But because “loneliness always got him into trouble quicker than anything,” Todd moves in with a roughneck named Frankie, whose face is disfigured by a scar. Once a month, Frankie spends a few days with an old hag [who]
didn’t give a damn what he looked like, as long as he could make his hog leg stand up. On Sunday evenings, he’d come back to the fish camp bruised with denture marks and loaded down with food she packed for him: dusty jars of preserves, bread sacks of bloody turtle meat, sometimes a soggy pie.
To Todd, Frankie adds, “My God, she’s awful. I might as well stick my dick in that jar of peaches.” The two men pass the time smoking, snorting, and dropping whatever they can get their hands on. A bad batch of “mildewed Lebanese hash” makes their gums bleed; their spit coats the floor with sticky blood. As expected, Frankie eventually steals Todd’s savings, but not before raping him and beating him up. Todd is at fault for trusting whom he shouldn’t and lacking the confidence to care for himself, but he’s otherwise a victim, unlike many other characters in Pollock’s work (the father in “Discipline” who pumps his kid up on steroids until his heart bursts, for example), whom the reader can’t help but feel is severely culpable.
It’s not easy to inject moments of grace into such brutal stories, but Pollock often cracks open a raw beauty I wouldn’t have thought possible, given the subject matter. In “Hair’s Fate,” a young boy getting off on his sister’s doll gets caught in the act by his father:
Trapped in the bright July sunlight pouring in through the open doorway, he was at that point in his fantasy where Gloria was begging him to split her in two with his big, hairy monster; his poor hand couldn’t have stopped if the old man had chopped it off and thrown it to the dogs. With a shudder, he unloaded his juices all over Lucy’s plastic face, the crooked orange mouth, the bobbing blue eyes. Then, like an omen, a black wasp glided down from the rafters and landed gently on top of the doll’s fake blonde hair.
The pace masterfully slows, and our gaze into the bright summer light shifts to an insect, small and natural.
I’ve been focusing on Pollock’s stories because I’m impressed by his skill for repeatedly plunging the reader into convincing, eviscerating worlds. He’s written some of the most arresting opening lines I’ve read in a long time: “I was coming down off the Mitchell Flats with three arrowheads in my pocket and a dead copperhead hung around my neck like an old woman’s scarf when I caught a boy named Truman Mackey fucking his own little sister in the Dynamite Hole.” Pollock rockets the reader into a highly particular time and place. He never wastes our time circling about the airfield looking for a spot to touch down. We’re immediately there, in the thick of it. Pinned right where Pollock wants us.
Like any art that traffics in the grotesque—I think, for example, of Goya’s Los Caprichos — Pollock’s fiction is not for the faint of heart. While a reader is always helpless in that she can’t influence the outcome of the story, rarely have I felt so hopeless. Pollock’s people appear destined to suffer, as if some rotten, misbegotten force has wrapped them tightly around its finger. In the stories of Flannery O’Connor, to whose fiction Pollock’s is often compared, I’m often baffled by why people do what they do, their mean and murderous impulses, and O’Connor’s own essays suggest that such mysteries are intentional. By contrast, in Pollock’s world, violence is clearly beget and perpetuated by humans: reading Pollock’s fiction makes me admit, with reluctance and discomfort, that people who act badly for reasons beyond their control — poverty, abuse, addiction — are still morally corrupt. Just as when Pollock explains failures in his own life as a result of his own choices — “where I had ended up was my own fault,” he says, adding that if he’d wanted to go to college as a young man his father likely would have helped him, “but that’s not the route I chose” — the author shows us again and again that these down-and-out southern Ohioans make terrible decisions. At the end of “Blessed,” for example, the Oxy addict realizes his son is not deaf and mute — he simply doesn’t talk when his father is around. The father recognizes this moment as one of great potential: he could spare his wife and kid, starting now, by leaving them alone. But then he remembers another bottle in the medicine cabinet, and we know their misery will continue.
Pollock achieves in his two books a powerful moral paradox, one that must undergird any fiction with staying power. He reveals with great care and specificity characters who are both trapped in cycles begun by those who came before and who could, if they really wanted, nudge their lives and those of others toward the better, rather than the worse. In Knockemstiff, there’s no such thing as a victimless crime.
For more on Donald Ray Pollock, and other authors who “bloomed” after the age of 40, visit Bloom.
Expanding the scope and upping the intensity of his debut story collection, 2009’s excellent Knockemstiff, Donald Ray Pollock’s debut novel, The Devil All the Time (out this week in paperback), is a descent into a cauldron of blood spilled in the name of deliverance.
When the novel opens in 1957, Knockemstiff, Ohio (a real town, or “holler,” where the author was born, and near which he still resides) is a place where “four hundred or so people lived…connected by blood through one godforsaken calamity or another…” Pollock uses this setting to stage an examination of the devil’s omnipresence in life and death on earth, or at least on the back roads and in the backyards of his corner of the American interior.
Roaming among several intersecting stories, The Devil All the Time is a book about the intimate side of violence, and how this is maybe the only form that true worship can take. His characters peer as far as they can into the interior of evil, in themselves and in others, desperate to catch a glimpse of something real and beautiful hidden there.
Their stories aren’t about seeing through the darkness; they’re about touching the darkness and feeling how substantial it can be. Luckily for any reader who makes the trip to Knockemstiff, Pollock renders this darkness quite substantial indeed. Without ever verging into the supernatural, his brand of homespun grotesquerie achieves moments of genuinely satanic power.
Despite the dismal cloud that hangs over his vision of the Ohio small town, Pollock himself has recently lived out a pretty rare kind of success story. He worked as a laborer and truck driver for Mead Paper until he was fifty, then quit, got an MFA from the University of Ohio, and now, a few years later, has two books out, both garnering praise from critics as well as from more established noir authors like Chuck Palahniuk and the late William Gay. He’s even been hailed as an heir to Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews.
I don’t think it’s wrong to place him near the Southern Gothic tradition, but not only is he very much from and of the Midwest and not the South, his work is also not quite Gothic. His vision shares neither O’Connor’s faith in ultimate redemption buried in the depths of apparent damnation, nor Crews’ knack for recasting every sad array of lost souls as a carnival of lusty, drunken freaks. Both are forms of levity, while Pollock’s world is sunk deep into a rock bottom that only gets deeper.
The Devil All the Time presents rural American Christianity in the mid-20th century as a snake pit of sadistic preachers, copious bloodletting, and displays of faith forced upon congregations of superstitious illiterates. The set pieces may hark back to O’Connor, but, here, the center is as rotten as the skin.
Nevertheless, Pollock stakes out a theological center of a different kind. It is to be found in his inquiry into how people decide to do evil so as to grasp the simultaneous reality of good. Unlike in O’Connor, good is not a force that defeats evil from within, but rather a force that exists inside of evil and cannot be separated from it, nor ever reached by other means.
In Knockemstiff, it’s both or neither.
In the opening section, Willard Russell, a traumatized WWII vet, tries to cure his wife’s cancer by pouring sacrificial blood over a “prayer log” in the woods behind his house. He comes out here “every morning and evening to talk to God.” Thinking back on it years later, his son, Arvin, recalls the conviction with which his father “fought the Devil all the time.”
Out at this log, as in the many killing chambers that the novel winds its way through, spiritual life is conducted not only in private, but in secret. When Willard feels “the urge to get right with his Maker” he knows he’s “going to need some woods to worship his way.”
Only in the hushed enclosure of the woods, or in the speed and barrenness of the open road, can the soul manifest its hideous contours and admit the reality of its fear, free of the burden of declaring a kind of faith it doesn’t actually feel.
By standing or pretending to stand as bastions against the devil’s incursion, the town and the church deliver themselves wholesale into the devil’s clutches. The Devil All the Time, as a novel concerned with the manifold delusions and aspirations of private spirituality, makes its way ever further from the sites of official congregation, and deeper into the wilderness.
Watching his father lose his lifelong fight, Arvin learns that the devil beats everyone, taking especial pleasure in punishing those who tried to resist. Pollock’s devil will not be denied, but he will cut a deal.
Among those in the devil’s camp are Roy and Theodore, a spider-handling End Times preacher and his crippled sidekick. These two gleefully profane the pulpit of the Coal Creek Church of the Holy Ghost Sanctified, but they’re nothing compared to the Tennessee preacher who turns up later on and begins preying on young girls. Spiteful and morose, his only consolation is that “his mother had decided all those years ago that he was going to be a preacher. All the fresh young meat a man could stand if he played his cards right.”
And then Pollock gives us Carl and Sandy Henderson, a husband and wife who cruise the Midwest and the South, “always on the hunt…in a black Ford station wagon purchased for one hundred dollars…” They pick up young male hitchhikers, drive for awhile, and then Carl asks if they’d like to have sex with his wife.
Once the hitchhiker and Sandy are naked on a picnic blanket just out of view of the road, Carl interrupts them with a gun and a sharp object, hoping for the pleasure of dismembering the young man and photographing the process in loving detail before finally deigning to kill whatever’s left of him.
Marking the extreme end point of the road that all the characters are heading down, Carl believes that murdering strangers is “the one true religion, the thing he’d been searching for all his life. Only in the presence of death could he feel the presence of something like God.”
This need to call the devil onto the mortal plane underlies all of the novel’s expressions of cruelty and desire. The Tennessee preacher finds it by cheating on his wife, because “he needed for a woman to believe that she was doing wrong when she lay with him, that she was in imminent danger of going to hell.” By eliciting this fear in others he proves to himself that he still has “some chance of going to heaven…”
Carl looks at two old bigots in a diner. As he begins to fantasize about killing them, “it was electric, the sensation that went through him just then.” He “couldn’t explain it, but he sure as hell could feel it. The mystery… ”
This sensation only lasts a moment, and it’s only a sensation, not a tangible insight, but it’s enough to shock him out of the state of living death in which he is otherwise interred.
The novel may not be Gothic, but the grotesque is vital to both its aesthetic and its theology.
In Knockemstiff and the many middles of nowhere that surround it, the degradation of the body is not a mirror for the degradation of the soul. It is, rather, a natural and simultaneous counterpart to it.
Carl’s “belly was starting to hang over his belt like a peck sack of dead bullfrogs,” and “his fat, pale, unshaved face looked like some cold and distant star.” Sandy, the “bait” that lures the hitchhikers in, is “rail thin and dirty-looking. Her face was caked with too much makeup, and her teeth were stained a dark yellow…” Overhead, “the sun popped out like a big, festering boil in the sky.”
Since death is so prevalent and so vivid, it’s easy to forget the role that life plays. But the grotesque, coming from the idea of the “grotto,” where entities bubble up in endless random forming and reforming, has to allow life and death to bleed together as equally mutable states of being, just like good and evil.
Out at the prayer log, Arvin and his father watch as “maggots dripped from the trees and crosses like squirming drops of white fat.” This shrine doesn’t work to prevent death, but it does work to open a grotto in the Ohio woods.
Unlike much of the existentialist tradition, The Devil All the Time is about fullness, not about emptiness. Throughout its engagement with murder and death, the novel’s focus is always on that which remains on earth: the murderer, the corpse, and the feeling of the devil’s presence, not of God’s absence. There is no transcendent escape from the mire, but, the deeper in you sink, the richer things become.
Remembering O’Connor’s statement that her stories dramatize “the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil,” I asked myself whether there’s any grace in the territory held by Pollock’s devil.
I think not exactly. Rather than attesting to the stable reality or unreality of grace, Pollock attests to the reality of the human need to keep looking. The novel descends into the same conundrum as its characters, sympathizing with their plight but never claiming an overarching perspective from which to judge the efficacy of their pursuits. Pollock stands by his disdain for preachers by never becoming one.
All that’s clear at the end is that if the divine cannot find its way into this world through piety and prayer, it’ll find another way, enlisting the help of anyone willing.
The willing here are, of course, those who become agents of extreme violence. The Devil All the Time is not a book against or even really about violence. It’s a book of violence.
So why go where it wants to take you?
I don’t know if I believe in God or the devil. But I do believe in fear – fear of unseen forces, of other people, and of myself.
There’s a part of me that wants nothing more than relief from this fear. It wants to read a book like this and say, “These are just bad people, doing bad things, all of it made up.” This is the part that wants to lock the door when it hears the devil knocking, and then pretend not even to have heard.
But underneath this is a part of me that terrifies the other part. It’s a part that derives pleasure and even nourishment from inhabiting the minds of characters like these, granting them reality by consenting to imagine them.
It’s the part of me that, like all of the monstrous people in this book, just wants to touch the mystery. It wants to believe that this mystery exists on earth, and not in some other world that can only be glimpsed in dreams, or that must be accepted on a preacher’s say-so.
I don’t think I could touch it by doing the things that Pollock’s characters do – that’s why I’m driven to reading and writing – but I wouldn’t be a reader and writer at all if I couldn’t relate.
It’s the part of me whose greatest fear is not of hearing the devil at my door, but of not letting him in when I do.
Cheryl Strayed’s collection of “Dear Sugar” columns is out this week (read our review). Also out are Our Kind of People by Uzodinma Iweala, The Investigation by Philippe Claudel, True Believers by Kurt Andersen, and The Absolutist by John Boyne. The new edition of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms with all the extra endings is out, as is (just in time for the Olympics) an oral history of the original Dream Team. Donald Ray Pollack’s The Devil All the Time is out in paperback.