Short Story Of the Day, Pills by Donald Ray Pollock

While Frankie drove around the township in circles that night, I told him all the secrets in my house, every single rotten thing that my old man had ever done to us. And though, in a stupid way, I felt like a fucking rat the more I blabbed, by the time the sun came up the next morning, it seemed as if all the shame and fear I’d ever carried inside of me was burned away like a pile of dead leaves.

—-Donald Ray Pollock, Pills

 

Design District
Dallas, Texas

A long time ago, I came across a book of short stories called Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock and wrote a blog entry about it.  Not for the faint of heart – these technicolor portraits of misanthropy and hopelessness (a bad and volatile combination) – were quite the read. Now I discover he has, in the intervening decade, wrote two novels, The Heavenly Table and The Devil All the Time. Going to have to add these to my TO BE READ list which is growing ever so longer. So many books, so little time.

In the interim, to tide all of us over, here’s a bit of a disturbing tale available online, from Knockemstiff.

Read it here:

Pills by Donald Ray Pollock

from The Barcelona Review

Donald Ray Pollock website

Donald Ray Pollock’s pest control website (What the hell? I think this is actually put up by the author. Why? Or is there some pest control guy with the same name? I don’t think so) Fun fact from this site: Flies for one reason or another hate Vodka.

A Month of Short Stories 2015, Day Twenty Nine – The Untold Lie

The last two years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month… you can see the list for 2014 and 2015 in the comments for this page. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day xx – The Untold Lie, by Sherwood Anderson

Read it online here:

The Untold Lie

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”

—- Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Today’s story is a chapter from Sherwood Anderson’s longer work – a short story cycle, Winesburg, Ohio.

It’s a tale of quiet desperation from two men – one that has earned it and one that hasn’t. There is an amazing scene early on – a flashback of sorts – of how the father of one of the two died.

When the train struck and killed him and his two horses a farmer and his wife who were driving home along a nearby road saw the accident. They said that old Windpeter stood upon the seat of his wagon, raving and swearing at the onrushing locomotive, and that he fairly screamed with delight when the team, maddened by his incessant slashing at them, rushed straight ahead to certain death. Boys like young George Willard and Seth Richmond will remember the incident quite vividly because, although everyone in our town said that the old man would go straight to hell and that the community was better off without him, they had a secret conviction that he knew what he was doing and admired his foolish courage. Most boys have seasons of wishing they could die gloriously instead of just being grocery clerks and going on with their humdrum lives.

Though the time, setting, and overall tone could not be more different, it reminds me somehow of Updike’s A&P – how easy it is to fall into habits and how little decisions can reverberate through time, to the end of life.

In the end, the story does not say who is right and who is wrong – it does not dare to take sides concerning what is the correct road taken. The title says it all – no matter what decision is made, no matter what advice is given – it will be… everything is lies.

Knockemstiff

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
  • Knockemstiff
  • Hair’s Fate
  • Pills
  • Giganthomachy
  • Schott’s Bridge
  • Lard
  • Fish Sticks
  • Bactine
  • Discipline
  • Assailants
  • Rainy Sunday
  • Holler
  • I Start Over
  • Blessed
  • Honolulu
  • 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.

 Gothic Hillbilly Noir?

Winosburg, Ohio

‘Knockemstiff’ Writer Pulls No Punches

REVIEW OF KNOCKEMSTIFF BY DONALD RAY POLLOCK