Knockemstiff, by Donald Ray Pollock

I found myself wishing I had a loved one who would die and leave me their barbiturates, but I couldn’t think of anyone who’d ever loved me that much.

Partly because I still haven’t put up a single review of a book by a man since writing that post on whether I’m a sexist reviewer (despite reading several!), my hand strayed towards Knockemstiff when choosing a book for this weekend’s Oxford-London coach journey. I’m currently reading Will Cohu’s brilliant novel Nothing But Grass in order to be able to ask him pertinent questions about it for a Q&A in Quadrapheme (indeed!), but it’s several hundred pages long and a hardback, and my Friday journey was intended to culminate in a bar near Piccadilly for a friend’s birthday, and then, quite possibly, some posho nightclub. A 400-page doorstop about manual labourers in the Lincolnshire Wolds is not an ideal item to carry around such places. A slim short story collection blurbed as “a whiskey-stained classic”, on the other hand, seemed pretty much ideal.

Knockemstiff, Ohio is real; it’s Pollock’s hometown, although he takes care in the acknowledgments to distance his work from the reality of the place. And for good reason: his stories are deeply reminiscent of early Cormac McCarthy, despite not having the same deliberately obtuse approach to sentence construction. The atmosphere of off-kilter, electric violence, where people’s actions (or passivity) constantly threaten to cross the line from the merely odd to the inarguably taboo, is the same. The first few stories, which seem to be chronologically earlier than the others, hinge on explosive moments of physical and sexual violence, but the theme runs throughout the collection.

Fathers are totemic in Knockemstiff–none of them are kind or good, but the influence of their scorn and their masculinity affects their sons more than almost anything else. The first story, “Real Life”, features a father whose bullying is relentless:

“I shit you not, Cappy,” my father was telling the man, “this boy’s scared of his own goddamn shadow. A fuckin’ bug’s got more balls.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Cappy said. He bit the filter off the cigarette and spat it on the concrete floor. “My sister’s got one like that. Poor little guy, he can’t even bait a hook.”

“Bobby shoulda been a girl”, the old man said. “Goddamn it, when I was that age, I was choppin’ wood for the stove.”

Unmanliness is the worst possible quality for a man in rural South Ohio. Spreading rumors about another man’s homosexuality can ruin not only his reputation, but his livelihood, and the possibility of having fathered a “queer” is beyond nightmare. Of course, all of this fear and anxiety only serves to drive things underground. In the story “Hair’s Fate”, young Daniel is unceremoniously shorn by his father, who fears that long hair equals effeminacy. Daniel runs away only to be picked up by a truck driver, who invites him back to his house and offers the blonde wig that his mother wore throughout her battle with cancer. The story ends with the trucker helping Daniel put the wig on, his hand lingering a little too long on the younger boy’s, and the unnerving final words:

Daniel knew that if he looked in the mirror again, he’d see the wig for what it really was. So instead, he closed his eyes.

Fathers are destructive even when they’re paying attention to their children. Luther Colburn in “Discipline” has spent years grooming his eighteen-year-old son to take the Mr. South Ohio bodybuilding title; the training strategy includes injecting him with steroids. It doesn’t end well for Colburn, Jr., and with him go Luther’s last hopes of glory. Men in Knockemstiff tend not to have a Plan B; they pin their hopes on one huge success, overplay their hands, or simply fail to account for margins of luck or error.

The collection features few women, and only one story is actually told from a woman’s point of view. For the most part, women are dead-eyed mothers, or dead-eyed whores. Sometimes, as in the case of Geraldine Stubbs, they make the transition from the latter to the former across several stories; we first meet Geraldine as a barely-pubescent white-trash hooker, trading her services for cans of beer. Later, she appears (although we don’t initially know it’s her) as the unshakable girlfriend of Del in “Fish Stick Girl”, and later still, she and Del are married, with a baby called Veena. Del, in one of the few moments of loyalty that men show to women in the whole collection, defends Geraldine to the checkout clerk at the convenience store, who refers to her as “crazy”: “She’s married to a friend of mine…They even got a little baby.” It’s about as close to a happy ending as Knockemstiff will allow.

Salon.com published an article recently about the way that poor, rural women are used as running jokes in Orange Is the New Black. I disagreed with that article, at least in part because I’d previously read this article on Vulture which took precisely the opposite stance: that OITNB is not only the sole contemporary TV show to engage with rape storylines in an appropriate fashion, but that it is also one of the few shows that has made it clear how disproportionately poor rural women are at risk of sexual violence. Pollock’s stories reminded me of that article: the casual use of and disregard for the female body is everywhere, but never do these stories make that disregard a virtue. One character in the earliest story in which Geraldine Stubbs features notes that no one has spoken to her throughout the entire transaction, “not even to say, see you next time, whore.” The fact that he notices and comments on the silence isn’t approbation; it’s not explicitly judgment, either, but it doesn’t need to be explicit. We can see the destructiveness of this way of treating other people; it’s played out in their lives, in every single story in the collection.

In the world Pollock describes, drugs are everything. Mostly, it’s prescription painkillers or antidepressants, acquired by manual laborers who suffer work-related injuries and then keep refilling the scripts. For some people, it’s a way of life: one woman, we’re told, has a whole stable of fat girls whom she “carts around” southern Ohio, getting antidepressants prescribed to them, which she then sells on. The girls are happy to do it, paid per job with a couple of ice creams for their kids, or a cheeseburger for themselves. In “Bactine”, two prospectless young men huff from spray cans; in “Pills”, the narrator and his buddy steal a stash and plan to sell it in California, but they end up too stoned to even get out of the county. Pollock’s vision is uncompromising, and it sure as hell isn’t glamorous. In “Schott’s Bridge”, one man steals a whole stash from another. The victim of the theft, without a home to return to or a trade to make a living from, walks out onto Schott’s Bridge in the middle of the night and jumps. It’s to Pollock’s immense credit that he makes us see the waste of this, the sorry awful trashing of potential that constitutes the most potent side effect of any narcotic.

What truly makes the collection is the final story, “The Fights”.  Narrated by a man probably in his mid-thirties who’s coping with alcohol addiction by attending AA meetings, the story takes its time before letting us know, through the narrator’s memories, that he’s the same character as the little boy bullied by his father in the first story. Here, we meet the old man again, decades later; his body ravaged by a lifetime of hard treatment, he’s now on oxygen, decaying in front of his family’s eyes but still terrifying. Bobby, our protagonist, goes to visit—encouraged by his sponsor, who’s a black man, something difficult for the old man to even comprehend—and finds his father watching televised boxing matches. The fights that he’s watching come to represent all of the other fights that there have been: Bobby’s fight with alcoholism, his father’s fight with impotence and mortality, the physical fights his father used to put him and his mother through, and above all of this, the fight to transcend what it means to be born into a place like Knockemstiff, Ohio. At the very end of the story, Bobby is outside smoking, fighting the impulse to take a drink, and sees his father through the window. A whoop of victory at an on-screen triumph turns into a look of mild panic as the old man’s oxygen tubes slip from his nose, and Bobby sees his father weigh up the consequences of leaving them there, of ending the fight early. He doesn’t, of course; he puts them back in.

The TV light brightened and then dimmed. Tossing my cigarette in the grass, I turned and started toward my car. The fight was nearly over.

His car: not his brother’s, where the beer is. This kind of victory–contingent, bittersweet–is the only kind there is in Knockemstiff, but in context, it feels momentous.

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