Sometimes, an author comes along and slaps you out of the literary rut you’ve found yourself in. Donald Ray Pollock is such an author. His prose is unlike anything else you will read at the moment, but that hasn’t stopped comparisons: Cormac McCarthy, Mark Twain, Quentin Tarantino, Raymond Carver, Sam Peckinpah and even Charles Dickens… all have been mentioned in recent reviews. But read his work and you will quickly discover he’s a man with a style all of his own.
Pollock is 62, and didn’t take up writing seriously until he was 50, having worked for three decades in a paper mill in Ohio. He grew up in a town called Knockemstiff – which sounds made up but is as real as Solihull, just significantly cooler – and named his first book of short stories after it. The stories are full of whiskey, speed, violence and incest. ‘Bleak’ is the best word to describe them. Bleaker than 2016’s news feed. Pollock has said that he’s always seen the world as a “sad and violent and troubled place” and that “you need a little bit of trouble in your story to make it interesting, but I do go overboard with that”.
Reviews of his most recent novel, The Heavenly Table, highlight the dark turns it takes: “standing under a waterfall of human perversion”, readers are “apt to be startled and disturbed” as it’s “extremely visceral, darkly funny, incredibly violent and – at times – difficult to read”.
The darkness in the novel – about three brothers robbing and murdering their way across Ohio in 1917 – when it comes, is unexpected, bloody and lingers with you long after you’ve turned the page. Heads are caved in, worms wriggle their way out of cadavers and torture victims are chained and kept under beds. But there’s humour there too, albeit dripping with desolation. It combines to create a novel that you will be breathlessly recommending to everyone you meet.
So what made a man like Pollock into the twisted writer that he is? Here, he reveals the 10 moments in film and literature that shaped his work.
Captain Oates’s death in The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge
Bainbridge’s novel is a recreation of the doomed, failed trek headed by Scott to be the first men to reach the South Pole. In the tent at their last camp, Captain Oates, hopelessly frostbitten and rotting with gangrene, dreams of his mother crying over his hopeless state, then awakens and realises it’s his own tears that he felt on his face. He struggles out of his sleeping bag and goes outside in his stocking feet, choosing suicide to any more needless suffering. Hallucinating, he sees Boy Charger, his favourite pony from his childhood, bridled and awaiting him. In my opinion, this scene is one of the saddest, most beautiful and intense passages about approaching death that’s ever been written.
The title story from the collection This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski
Borowski, who spent time in Auschwitz and Dachau, wrote the story in the immediate years after the war. Never have I read fiction that made me feel so sick of heart. The main character is a prisoner in a concentration camp who helps with the new arrivals for the gas chambers and cleans up the rail cars, disposing of dead babies, etc. The madness is described in a matter-of-fact style for the most part. I can understand how prisoners could be forced to do horrible things in order to live one more day, but not how soldiers convinced themselves they were just doing their jobs.
James Dickey’s poem The Sheep Child
Dickey’s poem is in two parts, the first explaining the warning that farm boys hear about what might happen if they couple with animals: “That in a museum in Atlanta/Way back in a corner somewhere/There’s this thing that’s only half/Sheep like a woolly baby…” The second section is narrated by such a freak preserved in a bottle of alcohol. Besides being proof that a good writer can do anything with the right words, it is one of the most startling poems I’ve ever read. Sure, it’s a little far-fetched, but the voice of the sheep-child speaking to us from his jar in a dusty, forgotten room, remembering his mother and his one and only meal before he died, is so wrenching that I forgot all about the strangeness of it.
The bad man in EL Doctorow’s Welcome to Hard Times
The ‘Bad Man from Bodie’ rides into the small frontier town and rapes, murders and robs for a few days. He is a sadistic bully who then leaves just as quickly as he appeared. Most of the novel is taken up with the attempts to rebuild the town as the survivors try to deal with the psychological damage. That’s what hits me hard, that the victims were never able to let him go.
The mother of the murdered child in William Gay’s story The Paperhanger
The mother is a snooty Indian woman, married to an accomplished doctor. She has hired a man to hang wallpaper in her house, and her arrogance drives him, an unstable man to begin with, into killing her small daughter and carrying her secretly out of the house in his toolbox. The child is never found, and the woman and her husband end up losing everything because of their grief. It is, I think, the way Gay makes you realise that something you might consider minor, in this case a careless insult, can mean so much to someone else and can cause irrevocable repercussions. It doesn’t take much at all to unhinge some people, a lesson I sometimes forget when I’m sitting safely in my writing shed.
Anthony Hecht’s poem More Light! More Light!
The second part of the poem tells about three men ordered by a German to “…dig a hole/In which the two Jews are ordered to lie down/And be buried by the third, who is a Pole.” The Polish man refuses and the situation is reversed, the two Jews now ordered to bury him, which they proceed to do. Right before he is covered up, the German orders him out of the hole and the Jews are put back in. This time he buries them alive, and is then shot in the belly and dies. I have wondered what I would have done in that predicament, but the ‘game’ the German makes out of the executions is what really haunts me.
The baby in Cormac McCarthy’s Outer Dark
Set in Appalachia in the early 1900s, a woman has a baby with her brother and the brother abandons it in the woods where it is found by a traveller. The sister takes off to find the baby and the brother follows after her. When the brother comes across the baby near the end, it is in the possession of a gang of loathsome miscreants who are terrorising the countryside. It is one-eyed and freakish, and the men treat is as a sort of pet. What really got me was McCarthy has one of the gang pick it up and slit its throat, then another suck the blood out of it. Even on a sheet of white paper, I’m not sure I could have done that.
The characters in Earl Thompson’s A Garden of Sand
The main character in Earl Thompson’s first novel is Jack, a young boy obsessed with sex whose mother is a part-time prostitute in the Midwest of the Thirties and Forties. The pages are also filled with a menagerie of damaged and dangerous characters whom Jack meets along the way – dwarves, whores, pimps, dirty cops, porn collectors, drug addicts, hotel clerks, drunks – some of them as cruel as any I’ve ever encountered in fiction, but others just as good-hearted. I read this book when I was 15 or so, and it was the first time I came upon a work of fiction that described some people and situations I could almost identify with.
The hanging scene in the film Once Upon A Time in the West
Henry Fonda and some other men put a noose strung from an arch around a man’s neck, while his feet are planted on his little brother’s shoulders. Fonda then places a harmonica in the boy’s mouth and tells him to play. It is only a matter of time before the boy’s legs weaken and he has to let his brother hang. And, of course, he never forgets. Sergio Leone’s 1968 film follows the boy as he (played by Charles Bronson) hunts the men down a few years later and blows a few notes on the harmonica every time he gets ready to kill one of them. Each time I heard that mournful wail, I thought of that incredible, powerful scene. Sometimes the little things make all the difference.
Denis Johnson’s Angels
This novel is a grim exploration of a botched bank robbery in which everyone involved is caught, and one of them, a worthless drunk named Bill Houston, ends up on death row. For much of the novel, I despised Houston for the way he had treated his girlfriend, Jamie, and her two young daughters; but by the time he was sucking gas, I had started to feel a little empathy for him, sort of a “There but for the grace of God, go I” moment. I’m still not quite sure how Johnson was able to make me realise that Houston was just another pitiful human whose life had been derailed by a series of unfortunate mistakes, but he did, and I try to carry that attitude into my own work.
SEE DONALD RAY POLLOCK AT OUR BOOK & BEER CLUB
Want to hear more from the man who wrote this article? You're in luck, as we've organised an unmissable evening just for ShortList readers, in association with Vintage. On 11 October at 7pm, Donald Ray Pollock will be appearing at The Blues Kitchen, Brixton, London, SW2 to talk about his acclaimed new novel The Heavenly Table with ShortList's editor Joe Mackertich, before answering your questions.
The Blues Kitchen could not be a more perfect venue for the US author's rare UK appearance; you'll be surrounded by bourben, American craft beer, barbecued meat and cornbread in homage to his homeland. For £10, you will get entry to the event, a signed copy of his latest book (worth £12.99) and a Sierra Nevada pale ale. We will see you there.
Book your tickets now by visiting penguin.co.uk/events
Donald Ray Pollock’s The Heavenly Table is out now, priced £12.99 (Vintage)
(Main image illustration: Jörn Kaspuhl)