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KNOCKEMSTIFF by Donald Ray Pollock

KNOCKEMSTIFF

By Donald Ray Pollock

Pub Date: March 18th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-385-52382-0
Publisher: Doubleday

A debut collection of terrifying, darkly funny stories concerning the drug-addled, beaten-down inhabitants of a southern Ohio holler called Knockemstiff.

Pollock’s characters are in dire straits: They tend to be addicts, brutes, connivers and small-time criminals with big-time depravities. A boy gets caught having sex with his sister’s doll in “Hair’s Fate.” “Pills” depicts tweakers on a binge. In “Giganthomachy,” a woman draws tattoos on her son’s arm, hands him a pair of scissors and asks him to come into her bedroom pretending to be mass-murderer Richard Speck: “Just spit on the floor, maybe,” she says. “Hurt me, but don’t really hurt me.” Another woman, in “Rainy Sunday,” helps her heavyset older aunt lure horny drunks into sex. “Blessed” shows a thief, disabled by falling off a roof mid-robbery, descending into a horrifically graphic addiction to painkillers. Several tales feature epicene young men hectored by violent fathers; others show people trying and failing again and again to escape, or even, finally, to want to escape. Throughout, Pollock shows deep empathy for these whipped and battered souls, most looking not so much for a way out as for a way to let it all slide. As one says, “It’s the same for most of us; forgetting our lives might be the best we’ll ever do.” The stories are strikingly similar in tone, setting, characters, even length, but that’s scarcely a problem in a collection as bleakly, unsettlingly funny—and touching—as this one.

Pollock grabs by the throat and doesn’t let go.