Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Some really sad stories

What do you get when you put Winesburg, Ohio , a bevy of Jim Thompson characters, and the songs of Big Black and the Drive By Truckers in a blender? You get the brief, brutal and sad stories of Donald Ray Pollock's Knockemstiff. Pollock was born in the actual town of Knockemstiff, Ohio, a town which may have named after a fistfight. The citizens do their best to live up to their town's heritage by filling their days with casual violence, thoughtless sex and a wide range of substance abuse.

It sounds like tough reading, and it is. Some of the stories are tragic as in the case where a mentally damaged recluse stumbles upon a brother and sister rutting in the woods or in the case where a boy tries to earn his father's love by viciously beating another boy. Others are merely sad as when a moves in with one of the town's many brutish thugs in hopes of finally finding a friend. In all these cases, things end poorly.

So why should you read these stories? If you can stand the sadness, it is the characters. Pollock has a real sympathy for his characters, probably developed in working thirty years in a paper mill. He has a clear-eyed view of the lives of the marginalized and the daily challenges they face. He doesn't provide much, if anything, for hope or redemption and even makes a point of the same sad stories repeating across the generations.

This book was short and theoretically you could knock it out in a evening. The stories were just too intense for me to do that. Depending on your viewpoint, that could be good or bad. My vote is good.


Anonymous said...

Hm, I must get this one, I think. I know exactly what you mean by books you enjoy even though you have to "stand the sadness." I might have to wait until the right mood strikes me, but I think this'll be an interesting read. Thanks for bringing it to everyone's attention!

Tripp said...


It is a good book for certain. It helps that it is short, as to much more would have been hard to read.