Gregory Baird's Reviews > Knockemstiff

Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock
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Apr 18, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: 2008-booklist, short-stories, fiction-literature, poverty, americana
Recommended for: Fans of Chuck Palahniuk or Denis Johnson
Read in May, 2008

“Forgetting our lives might be the best we’ll ever do."

The stories found In “Knockemstiff,” Donald Ray Pollock’s raw and powerful literary debut, are not for the faint of heart. Brutal and uncompromising, they capture the hardscrabble lives of the residents of Knockemstiff, Ohio – the very same town that Pollock comes from (although he cautiously points out in his acknowledgments that the actual residents of his hometown are really “good people who never hesitated to help someone in a time of need”).

“My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old. It was the only thing he was ever any good at.” With these words Pollock opens his story collection, and over the next two hundred pages it doesn’t get any prettier. In many cases, it only gets grittier and more difficult. Substance abuse, neglect, loneliness, dependency, abuse (of both spouses and children), betrayal, shocking outbursts of violence, and even murder are found in virtually every episode. Undoubtedly this has led to those unfair one star reviews that dismiss Pollock’s work as depressing and unreadable. Those readers are justified to have that opinion, but I don’t know how they could deny the power of his prose. Having lived a hardscrabble life himself, dropping out of high school, working at a meatpacking plant and a paper mill for thirty years and struggling through stints in rehab, Pollock writes with an authority and packs a punch that can only come with experience, making it quite difficult to believe that this is only his first collection. Truly, his talent was a major discovery.

Reading “Knockemstiff” is a mesmerizing, if unsettling, experience unlike any other I’ve had since I read Denis Johnson’s superb “Jesus’ Son”. Sure, it isn’t for everyone, but I don’t see how anyone could put this book down after finishing the first story. Those of us with the stomach will thank Pollock for the ride when it’s all over.

Grade: A
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