Knockemstiff, Ohio, is a place where bony dudes, emboldened after swigging whiskey from car ashtrays, flatten men three times their size in drive-in bathrooms. It’s place where acne-riddled teenagers flee abusive fathers in favor of overweight, speed-popping homosexual truck drivers. It’s a place where hapless store clerks eat bologna and drink Pabst Blue Ribbon while dreaming of girls well beyond their reach.
At least that’s the Knockemstiff we get in Donald Ray Pollock’s debut collection of short stories, aptly titled Knockemstiff, published earlier this year. Praised by everyone from Chuck Palahniuk (“more engaging than any new fiction in years”) to The New York Times (for whom he’s actually written editorials), Pollock’s stories are propelled by a visceral, finely tuned prose style and an evocative narrative thrust as sensitive as it is savage. His stories grab one from the get-go, drawing in the reader with a deep sense of pathos that, by their often metaphysical finales, evolve into something close to uplifting.
Speaking of get-goes, try this from the opening sentence of the first story, “Real Life”: “My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old.” Or this from “Dynamite Hole”: “I was coming down off the Mitchell Flats with three arrowheads in my pocket and a dead copperhead hung around my neck like an old woman’s scarf when I caught a boy named Truman Mackey fucking his own little sister in the Dynamite Hole.” Or this from “Bactine”: “I’d been staying out around Massieville with my crippled uncle because I was broke and unwanted everywhere else, and I spent most of my days changing his slop bucket and sticking fresh cigarettes in his smoke hole.”
At 53, Pollock’s route to publication was nearly as unconventional as his characters. Born and raised in the actual Knockemstiff (a small, decaying town about an hour east of Cincinnati), he quit high school his junior year to work in a meatpacking plant.
It wasn’t long before Pollock moved on to a paper mill in nearby Chillicothe, Ohio, where he worked for nearly 30 years.
“When I was about 45 I sort of hit this wall, what some people call a midlife crisis,” Pollock says by phone from his home in Chillicothe. “I was disappointed in the way I had lived my life and the way things had turned out. So I decided to make a change.”
Long an avid reader in a town that didn’t celebrate such things, the seeds of his new career were actually planted a decade earlier.
“To be honest about it, what happened was I quit drinking when I was in my early thirties and I had a lot of free time on my hands,” he says. “Pretty much all I did before I quit was drink and work. The paper mill where I worked would pay 75 percent of your tuition if you wanted to go to college part time. And we had a branch campus here, and so I started going to school when I was 35.”
Five years later he had an English degree from Ohio University. And he didn’t stop there.
“In the back of my mind I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and I told my wife I was going to try,” he says. “I was going to give it five years and work at it and see what happens. When I was 50 I quit the mill and entered the graduate program at Ohio State.”
Sixteen months later Doubleday agreed to publish his collection, which Pollock fine-tuned via the nurturing work-shopping process at OSU.
Each of Knockemstiff’s 18 loosely linked stories is set in his hometown, a place that brings to mind the depraved, desolation-laced setting of Harmony Korine’s Gummo as described by Raymond Carver.
“A lot of that parallels my own experience from the time I was 15 or 16 until I was in my early thirties,” Pollock says of the book’s tough subject matter. “My life wasn’t as gritty as the lives in the book, but I did see a lot of stuff, and it made a big impression on me.”
Likewise, many of Pollock’s desperate, dead-end characters are drawn from his own experience and that of those around him.
“I can relate to the people who get trapped in a situation — maybe it’s a relationship or a marriage or a job or an addiction or ignorance — and can’t get out," he says. "I worked at the paper mill for all those years, and I have to say it was a great job, but I never really liked working there. I can relate to that feeling of being stuck. It was a subject that I felt I knew something about.”
As for the future, Pollock admits the whirlwind success of Knockemstiff has thrown him for a loop.
“It put a little more pressure on me than I thought it would as far as how the next book is going to be received,” he says. “Before I entered graduate school I didn’t know any writers. After I’d been there a while, I realized how hard it is to get noticed at all as a writer, how hard it is to find a publisher and all that stuff. I know this sounds pretty clich, but I feel really lucky that Doubleday picked up the book and that it got good reviews. I couldn’t really ask for any more.”
DONALD RAY POLLOCK takes part in the Books by the Banks festival at the Duke Energy Center 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday. Get details and find nearby bars and restaurants here.