A brief explanation of this (hopefully) recurring series: I’m not the kind of person that’s on the crest of the zeitgeist. It usually takes me a couple months (at least) to get to whatever is the new hot when it debuts. I just recently finished watching Downton Abbey (awesome, though the second season got pretty ludicrous) and right now I’m still figuring out what albums from 2011 were any good (hat tip to Mr. Heavenly). With books I’m even farther behind. A Visit from the Goon Squad is sitting forlornly underneath a stack of about five other books on my to-read shelf right now. Within the confines of my small mind this doesn’t bother me, but it’s kind of a pain in the ass when it comes to thinking of stuff to write about on my desolate blog here as I don’t want to come across as some kind of wimp-ass trying to play catch up by talking about stuff that’s not hot anymore. I want to be talking about what’s hip and cool! But, shit, I’m not hip and cool so I give up. Here are my (hopefully recurring) thoughts on books that have been out for however long and already had everything meaningful that will be said about them said by people infinitely more insightful and important than I am. Deal with it. By not reading it. Which you won’t.
“Route 50 was two miles away, and I started walking toward it. Mud stuck to my boots like wet concrete, and every few steps I had to stop to shake it off. Looking up, I saw the red blinking lights of an airliner, miles above me, heading west. I’d never been on a plane, 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.“
The true heart of American fiction lives in the small town. Sure, plenty of books have obsessively mined cities, especially fabled New York, as their locale (the city itself becomes a character! – a loathsome phrase to be sure). But without any research or figures to back up this claim I can confidently say that the small town dominates American literature. In fact, the small town dominates the American identity (for reasons beyond the scope of the discussion at hand) and as people pour into cities and the population of rural areas dwindle these places take on even more mythic proportions. It is easy to idealize small town life, its simplicity and friendly familiarity, especially for a (presumed) urban, upper class literary audience; and also is it easy to demonize for its dullness and small-mindedness. As with any other subject, the authenticity of the work, of the characters and the world, is paramount.
If there’s a main story from Knockemstiff, it isn’t from the book, it’s about authenticity. Almost every discussion of the book touched heavily on the author, Donald Ray Pollock, and his hardscrabble underclass life and unlikely journey to respected literati. I’m not going to dwell on this as I certainly respect Pollock and have no ill will towards him or his success. I’m bringing this up merely to underscore the fact that Pollock’s background was a hard selling point for the authenticity of his work. But the stories in Knockemstiff don’t feel like an authentic view of a troubled small town. They read like a cosmopolitan nightmare of what small town life is like, filled with violent paint-huffing yokels, gravel roads and broken store fronts, cheap beer and incest.
I’d like to point out at this time that I’ve never been to Knockemstiff. I googled some pictures of the town and it does look about as bombed out as it is described, and neither am I questioning Pollock’s intent. He mentions explicitly in the acknowledgements that “my friends and neighbors [in Knockemstiff] were good people who never hesitated to help someone in a time of need.”
The problem is not the milieu of the stories, but rather the heart at their core. There seems little effort to understand or empathize the denizens of Knockemstiff, rather they are duly paraded out to take their lumps for the audience before being shuffled off. The characters are caricatures, grotesqueries not in the tradition of Flannery O’Connor but in the freak show mode. The only story in the book to stoop to offer any sort of redemption to its tortured protagonist is “I Start Over”, when an obese man beats several teenagers to a bloody pulp after they mock his mentally debilitated-by-way-of-drugs son in the drive thru of a Dairy Queen.
None of this is to say that the book isn’t any good, per se. The prose is clean and exhilarating in places; for any possible liberties the stories take with the characters Pollock never uses his prose to denigrate his characters or their world. Pollock knows his strengths as a writer and plays them to the hilt, which is also most likely the root of my problems with the book. Pollock knows how to beat up a character incredibly well, and not much else.
It would be a lie to have a book deal with characters living in such abject poverty and have their lives painted as especially joyous or hopeful. As a socio-economic document on those left behind in America’s abandonment of rural areas, the stories certainly have merit. But such literature, devoid of any sort of redemptive aspect, devoid of even a small measure of empathy and compassion, becomes little more than a shooting gallery. In the eponymous story, a married couple of upper class effete yuppies from California roll through town and look to photograph some locals for a book the wife is working on. The narrator of the story is annoyed with the two, and wonders if they are making fun of him, or “why someone would make a special trip just to take a picture of Knockemstiff, or put such a picture in a book.” But still, the man poses underneath the town sign for a picture with the girl he loves (who is about to leave town), and she enthuses “This might be my last chance to get my picture took with a dumb hillbilly.” The story comes early in the book, and the uneasy exploitation of the scene looms over the rest of the stories. The intended irony of the story is hard to miss, but what runs deeper is an irony that Pollock most likely didn’t intend, for even as the yuppie couple become a symbol of the reader, Pollock becomes a substitute for the girl in the picture, smiling next to her fellow Knockemstiff resident, co-opting his humiliation as the flash bursts.
Check out Knockemstiff on Amazon.