After I finished Volt I moved right on into another book of short stories set in the gray area between doomed small-town America and the outskirts of hell. This one is called Knockemstiff, by Donald Ray Pollock. The eighteen stories take place from the sixties to the nineties and contain a lot of interconnected characters – all living (if you can call it living) in a small Ohio town with the odd name of Knockemstiff. It seems like a stretch of literary license to make up a name like that for a set of stories like this – but the town used to exist. The author actually grew up there. There is even a map in the front of the book – like a trailer park trashy Lord of the Rings. One woman that shows up in several stories has KNOCKEMSTIFF as a tramp-stamp tattoo.
The author says that some of the events in the stories were inspired by stuff he saw – but the real inspiration was the decades he spent as a blue collar worker – a meatpacking plant and thirty years at a paper mill. After three marriages and four stints in rehab he quit work to write.
The first story, about a boy with a drunken, violent father, who gets the both of them in a nasty fistfight in the concession stand of the Torch Drive-in movie theater during a showing of Godzilla. It was pretty horrific in its details – the kid’s father drinking whiskey from the car’s ashtray and wiping the sweat off his head with a paper bag – but it was well-written and effective and not too over the top.
Now then, though, the second story, Dynamite Hole… well, to say it was over the top is a bit of an understatement. These are not stories for the easily offended or the weak of heart. Dynamite Hole is a true journey to the heart of perversion and hopeless doom. Do not read this book if you don’t have a strong stomach and a good sense of the separation between fact and fiction.
Now, I really liked this book. That does not make me a bad person. This is a fiction, these are lies. Even if the town once existed – this stuff did not really happen like this (I hope). It is a set of horrific tales about the dregs of human scum… all of which somehow end up in the same tiny hamlet – soon to become a well-deserved ghost town. Maybe sharing a read with these folks makes me feel a little bit better about my own flaws… I don’t know. It’s well written, interesting, entertaining – that’s good enough for me.
Even the titles of the stories seem to seep with quiet disaster.
- Real Life
- Dynamite Hole
- Hair’s Fate
- Schott’s Bridge
- Fish Sticks
- Rainy Sunday
- I Start Over
- The Fights
Minor characters in one story turn out to be the protagonists in another. I thought of going through one more time and making a chart of who was related to whom and who did what and what nasty end they came to. But before I could get started, I decided I didn’t really want to spend that much time with these people… at least not right now.
Despite the deep horrific lives these folks live – the Bactine huffing, the living for years in abandoned cars out in the woods, the tons of stuff I won’t even write them down here – there are moments of hope and redemption. In one of the last stories, Blessed, a father is driving with his family into the city so his wife can sell some blood (he can’t sell any because of the hepatitis). The father’s promising burglary career as a second story man was destroyed when he fell off the roof of a pharmacy in the middle of the night. The little family road trip goes about as horribly wrong as possible. What really bother’s him, though, is the fact that he has come to realize that his son is mute. When they return home, his wife won’t let him back into the house until he cleans up (for well-deserved reasons).
As he peers into the window, he sees and hears his son talking excitedly to his wife, the boy’s mother. He isn’t mute – he only refuses to speak in the presence of his dad. The father takes this as a good sign and determines to go on, as best he can.
Such is life in Knockemstiff.
‘Knockemstiff’ Writer Pulls No Punches