You’ll know when you’re in Donald Ray Pollock country. The hills and hollers, dirt-patch farms and flyspeck mill towns of his fictional Appalachia are populated by every stripe of degenerate and misanthrope.
“Knockemstiff,” a 2008 collection of stories linked by their southern Ohio setting, won the 2009 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize. “The Devil All the Time,” Pollock’s 2011 debut novel, won accolades in Europe but received mixed reviews here. Detractors judged the violence to be gratuitous. With “The Heavenly Table,” Pollock returns with another deranged, blood-soaked tale, but because of its technical prowess and contemplation of weighty ideas, it’s his best work yet.
The novel, set in 1917, has various subplots, but they revolve around the adventures of the Jewett brothers — Cane, Cob, and Chimney. They begin the story as dirt-poor tenant farmers one cornmeal-mush supper away from starvation. Their religious zealot father drives them on in their labors with promises that, after lives of righteous misery, they’ll eat their fill at “the Heavenly table.” The only light in the brothers’ lives is their nightly reading from a pulp Western about a heroic outlaw named Bloody Bill.
After their father keels over one day, the young men decide avenge their mistreatment at the hands of their cruel landlord by burglarizing his home. The man surprises them in the act, and they end up gruesomely murdering him. They go on the lam and quickly turn to robbing banks in the style of their fictional hero.
Part Western, part folk tale, part Southern Gothic, “The Heavenly Table” is all Pollock — scatological, brutal, and bawdy. The cartoonish humor is the lowest sort of lowbrow. One supporting character, Jasper Cone, is a dim but amiable “sanitation inspector” whose job consists of measuring the depth of excrement in outhouses. Then there’s Sugar, a vain African-American gigolo, who’s incensed when the woman he’s been taking advantage of throws him over for a younger man. A closeted military officer, Vincent Bovard, has fantasies of battle involving sweaty, struggling, young men sacrificing themselves on the altar of glory.
At times, reading Pollock’s work is like standing under a waterfall of human perversion. Everyone is corrupt. No one is spared. Even Ellsworth Fiddler, one of the book’s heroes, falls victim to a ridiculously transparent swindle, blinded by naiveté and greed.
But “The Heavenly Table” also has its sights on higher things. The author pulls back from the outright exploitation of characters. Shot through the cracks of their general debasement and idiocy is their humanity. The Jewett brothers each search for their ideal version of home. Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler pine for the return of their prodigal son. Several characters struggle with very real addictions (as, I have read, the author once did).
His social criticism is more pointed and subversive here, too. There is more than a little class rage in the Jewetts’s impatience with the deferred rewards of heaven; in barkeep/serial killer Frank Pollard’s capricious selection of torture victims from among his clientele; in the absurd folly of poor country people enlisting to fight a war against a nation they cannot locate on a map.
A striking technical aspect is the thumbnail biography Pollock offers every character. Here’s one of Pollard’s victims, a fellow otherwise inconsequential to the plot: “His name was Johansson, and he was a carpenter from Indiana who specialized in fine joinery and loved to square dance, but after tonight, he would just be a pile of dumb pieces.” The inhabitants of Pollock’s fictional world, just like those in the real one, carry discrete identities into whatever circumstance befalls them.
Much of Southern Gothic fiction relies on distortion to comment on reality. There’s war in the streets between police and civilians. Laws are being drawn up about who can use which bathroom. A reality-TV star is poised to control the fate of nations. Each of these scenarios is grotesque enough to find its way into any Southern Gothic novel. “The Heavenly Table” is just this sort of darkly humorous nightmare, intended to jolt the public awake. It just might be a good novel for the times.
THE HEAVENLY TABLE
By Donald Ray Pollock
Doubleday, 365 pp., $27.95
Ted Kehoe’s fiction has appeared in Epoch, Ploughshares, Southwest Review, and other magazines.