Some of us who grew up in small towns look back fondly on bike rides, the ol' fishing hole and blueberry pie with lemonade at the cafe. Others are glad they left and remember only boredom, limited entertainment and the lack of privacy. Others still -- like Donald Ray Pollock, as evidenced in his crazy, creepy and brilliant new book, "Knockemstiff" -- remember their hometowns as dirty, violent hotbeds of drug abuse and mental illness.
A high-school dropout who worked in factories for more than 30 years before coughing up this debut collection of stories, Pollock digs down deep under the loamy soil of rural life -- past the worms and the decaying garbage -- until he gets to the place where the bodies are buried. Pollock's writing is dark, gross, yet decidedly lively, and along with the stench of what he's unearthed is the sense that a rarely depicted way of life has been uncovered.
The loosely connected stories are set in and around the real-life town of Knockemstiff, Ohio (where Pollock is from and near where he still lives), and span roughly from World War II to the current age of rural Oxycontin abuse. Characters include a subhuman murderer who lives in the woods, an aging woman who gets her niece to attract men in bars so the aunt can drug them and bring them home, a couple of drug thieves who gobble up their booty before they can sell it, and a friendly fat guy who lets his friends throw darts at his naked torso while he embraces a Nancy Sinatra record.
The language is stark and uncomfortable. In "Schott's Bridge," Pollock holes up local boys Frankie and Todd in a fishing cabin. They get high, and tell tales: Frankie talks about a time he ate a raw chicken, "guts and all" as he massages his swollen liver. Pollock describes their forest idyll thusly: "For most of that week, they'd been smoking on a big block of mildewed Lebanese hash that a logger had sold them for practically nothing because it made people's gums bleed. The floor of the fish camp was sticky with bloody spit. Flies buzzed around them like they were dead meat."
As complete as Pollock's construction of the repellent world of "Knockemstiff" is, there's something uncomfortable about how this extreme version of rural rot will satisfy the prejudices of the urban and coastal elites. Much of the country's midsection is already referred to dismissively as "flyover land." In the story "Pills," as Frankie and another drugged-up loser are cooking a long-dead chicken over a burning tire, Pollock addresses the slur of "flyover land" a little too obviously: "Looking up, I saw the red blinking lights of an airliner, miles above me, heading west. I'd never been on a plane, never been out of Ohio for that matter, but I imagined big-shot bastards on vacation, movie stars with beautiful lives. I wondered if they could see the glow of Frankie's fire from up there. I wondered what they would think of us."
"Knockemstiff" is an indictment of small-town life to be sure. But readers needn't share Pollock's bleak perspective to fall under the spell of this book's heady mix of grime, action and suicidal tendencies. Pollock's weathered hands have crafted theses ugly and vibrant stories to be as thrilling and repugnant as a fresh car wreck.
Former Minnesotan Cherie Parker works at Idle Time Books in Washington, D.C. She blogs at http://the litlife.com.