I ventured out of my usual reading habits with this one, and that’s thanks to a friend and writer who I admire greatly. “Knockemstiff” is a collection of fictional short stories about a real town in Southeast Ohio. The stories are about rape, drug use, incest, murder, poverty, crime, violence, and other awful circumstances faced by residents of Knockemstiff. It is by definition a grotesque and it wasn’t an easy read. But I couldn’t put it down.
First of all, yes, it’s a real place. Map here. I’ve spent a little time in Southeast Ohio and it’s a fascinating place. Physically, it’s gorgeous. Even lifelong Ohioans are often stunned when they drive through the region and see the natural beauty that exists in their own state. It’s also one of the poorest parts of the state. There’s not a ton of industry, minimal job creation, and only recently some economic activity from drilling in the Marcellus shale. The towns are small and insular. When they teach newbies about Ohio, they say it is actually five distinct states. Southeast Ohio is by far the toughest one to crack. (Which is saying something since another one of thee “states” is Cleveland.)
The author, Donald Ray Pollock, grew up in Knockemstiff. He worked for nearly thirty years in a paper mill in Meade. And then he left for Ohio State University to get his MFA. (That is a story itself.) He still lives in Chillicothe. He’s written novels (his first was reviewed in the New York Times by the true renaissance man Josh Ritter). “Knockemstiff” was published while he was still at OSU, and I’ve yet to see a review that hasn’t referenced that other book of short stories from an Ohio town, “Winesburg, Ohio.” It’s been a long time since I read “Winesburg” but I’m fairly certain it was no where near as depraved as “Knockemstiff.”
Pollock’s writing reminds me a bit of Willy Vlautin’s crisp prose. It’s not overwrought; instead it’s stark and evocative of a black and white photo. The stories didn’t overdo the imagery or the landscape, but I still can imagine Knockemstiff as well as I can my own backyard. The individual stories are disturbing. There are incredibly violent scenes; some of the people seem to lack all humanity. They steal and abuse one another and beat each other to bloody pulps. They rape children and kill others. It’s not pretty stuff.
So, then, two questions. Why does he write about this and why did I like the book? To the first question: Clearly, some of this is not just total fiction that is borne of Pollock’s insanely creative mind. He says in the acknowledgments that the stories “are inspired by a real place.” So in a sense, I suspect he’s writing a bit of what he knows with some (I hope) exaggeration. More importantly, I think this is a book about the forgotten. Pollock takes a town that most have never heard of and hits us so hard over the head with these stories that it will now be impossible to forget. The town of Knockemstiff and all of its people, fictional or not, are now burned into my mind.
And to the second question? Here’s an author who has been married three times, and in and out of rehab four, and here he blasts onto the scene at age 50 as an spectacular storyteller. His stories may be X-rated and cringe-inducing, but they are stories well told and woven together deliberately. Some of the lines in the book make you want to read them out loud, but you’d have to do it in a room by yourself. Sometimes a book isn’t written to warm your heart or teach you something. Sometimes a book is there to shock you and make you uncomfortable. These books makes you think about people and places we usually ignore. They make you consider the use of words and language in a way you don’t often do. Books like this celebrate the grotesque.
All of this is ok once in a while. But just once in a while.
Thanks for reading.