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Book by Donald Ray Pollock.


Donald Ray Pollock's debut collection of stories has some obvious antecedents: the trailer park realism of Raymond Carver and the comic Faulkner of the Snopes cycle, maybe even the drug-soaked prose of Denis Johnson in Jesus' Son. Pollock has his own strong voice, though, writing intense stories that are ugly, funny and sad in equal measure. A late bloomer as a writer, Pollock was a high school dropout who put in 30 years working at a paper mill, as well as several stints in and out of rehab, and that life experience manifests itself vividly throughout the book. He creates damaged characters that are severely trapped by their circumstance, but who at their most down and out usually still display a stubborn vitality and vulgar humor.

Named for the southern Ohio town where he grew up, Knockemstiff is a group of linked stories that describe the edge dwellers, misfits, petty criminals and screw-ups in the town with a sympathy that doesn't prevent Pollock from sometimes making his characters the butt of the jokes. He rightly gives himself permission to do so because he's intimately acquainted with their foibles. Even at their most depraved and ridiculous, the residents of Knockemstiff retain their humanity.

The collection begins and ends with stories featuring the same main character, set 30 years apart. The first, "Real Life," is a harrowing tale of sudden violence at a drive-in, where a seven-year-old boy witnesses his father doing "the only thing he was any good at" — hurting people. In the final story, "The Fights," that same violent man is decrepit, old and watching a fight on TV, while his estranged son struggles to maintain his sobriety.

Pollock's best stories sketch dark images in the mind that are hard to shake. A feral draft dodger becomes a murderer, then returns to society. A duo of pill thieves steal their stash and plan to go to California, but never quite get around to it. A senile old man lives in a dream of Hawaii in his mind. A father and son shoot steroids to the marches of John Philip Sousa. Major characters in some stories become minor characters in others. Everyone is ultimately connected.

If there is a minor flaw in the book, it's in the similarity of some of the characters and situations, especially in the last half of the collection. There are a few too many crazy, screwed-up couples consuming junk food and mind-altering substances (including Bactine, in a story of the same name). A handful of the stories lack definition from each other. Even so, the hit-to-miss ratio is high, and his lesser stories still get by on gusto.

This is not a book for the fainthearted or the polite. Some may find Pollock's stories to be too grotesque, too violent, too sexually explicit or too funny (about things that just shouldn't be joked about). Those attuned to his wavelength though, will discover a wickedly lunatic sensibility like no other.

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