This debut novel occasionally flashes the promise that the author showed in his highly praised short-story collection, but falls short of fulfilling it.
The unflinching, often hilarious stories in Knockemstiff (2008) drew considerable attention to a writer whose own story was as fascinating as his fiction. A mill worker for three decades in blue-collar Ohio (where he sets his fiction), Pollock belatedly earned an MFA from Ohio State and published his collection of stories in which themes and characters were so interwoven that it might have passed as a novel. It was inevitable that his next book would be an actual novel, and billed as such, but this isn’t the total knockout that one might have expected. Instead, its various plot strands, which inevitably come together at the end, might have worked better as individual stories. Set again in rural, impoverished Knockemstiff and nearby Mead, the novel opens with the relationship of young Arvin Russell and his father, Willard, a haunted World War II vet who marries a beautiful woman and then watches her die from cancer. He alternates between praying and drinking, neither of which do much to alleviate his pain. In fact, his son “didn’t know which was worse, the drinking or the praying.” The tragic ways of the world (in a novel that sometimes aims at dark comedy) leave Arvin an orphan. As he’s maturing into young adulthood, raised by his grandmother, the plot shifts include a huckster pair of religious revivalists, a preacher who preys on young girls and a husband-and-wife pair of serial killers (she seduces their victims, whom they call “models,” and he photographs and kills them). Though there’s a hard-bitten realism to the character of Arvin, most of the rest seem like gothic noir redneck caricature (some with latent homosexual tendencies). A piece of cheap motel wall art could stand as the aesthetic credo: “It served no purpose that he could think of, other than to remind a person that the world was a sorry-ass place to be stuck living in.”
Pollock remains a singular stylist, but he has better books in him than this.