When reading author bios, it seems like it is always Ivy League-this, prestigious fellowship-that. They invariably live in Manhattan (or Brooklyn if under 35) and are married to someone similarly upmarket. That these achievements are touted on dust jackets is to be expected, of course, but the homogeneity of the blurbs can feel a little stale. So I’m always excited to find authors who have led rocky lives, grew up in derelict trailer parks, or on hog farms, or somewhere similarly ramshackle, and have managed the statistically impossible feat of publishing brilliant books.
One such outlier is Donald Ray Pollock, the author of The Devil All the Time and Knockemstiff. According to his website, he grew up in a holler in Southern Ohio, dropped out of high school at seventeen to work in a slaughterhouse, and went on to spend thirty-two years laboring in a paper mill (both jobs very smelly and therefore very authentic). Pollock returned to school later in life, and in 2009 was awarded his MFA in Creative Writing from Ohio State University.
Both of his published works take place in the backwoods of Ohio, and both focus on the bleak, hardscrabble lives of the rural disenfranchised. His first book is a series of short stories that follow various residents of the small town of Knockemstiff (also the title of the book, and the town where Pollock was raised). The economic and cultural isolation of this forgotten place manifests in bizarre, often depraved, behaviors – drugs, incest, murder – all written in a darkly ambivalent tone. The residents' depravity is exhibited with a slothful, crusty hollowness, suggesting a touch of black humor from the author, but without any judgment. It’s reminiscent of the film Gummo, if the movie was quite a bit smarter.
Pollock’s more recent work, The Devil All The Time, is thematically similar to his short stories, but draws back from the grotesque a degree, leaving a far more dramatic and approachable story. Also centered in small town Ohio, the prose follows a series of luckless, downtrodden souls – each sharing bleak pasts and no real hope for a sunnier tomorrow. His characters include a crooked cop, disgraced and disgraceful preachers, and a serial killing couple roaming the highways to prey on young wanderers. The first half of the book feels like a dysthymic trudge, but characters are eventually woven together and a protagonist revealed, ending with hints of a thriller. Publisher’s Weekly named it a top ten book of the year, as did GQ. It’s an amazing book, without a doubt, and highly recommended, but a word of warning: The story has the power to sap the happiness right out of you. I wouldn’t suggest reading it first thing in the morning, right before bed, anytime on vacation, or mixing it with alcohol - and maybe avoid reading Pollock altogether if you have a family history of depression.
Ransom - Reference