Review of Knockemstiff, by Donald Ray Pollock
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/19/08
One of the most reliable tipoffs to the fact of a writer’s not being of high quality is when he is overpraised, and overpraised in a way that stresses nothing of a literary nature, usually by a published writer who lacks any skills of his own. Such was reinforced to me upon reading the new collection of short stories by first time writer Donald Ray Pollock, Knockemstiff.
Now, wait a minute, you say. Isn’t it true that agents and editors always bemoan the fact that the publishing world is so ‘competitive,’ especially in regards to there being no market for short fiction? Of course, all of this goes out the window when a writer gets a blurb from a known writer; in this case, the hack’s hack, (Up)Chuck Palahniuk, the man who brought you that literary marvel, Fight Club. The Chuckster effuses on the dust jacket: ‘Donald Ray Pollock gives us the impossible- fast, funny stories about the saddest people you’ll ever meet in fiction….more engaging than any new fiction in years.’
Need I really state that none of this is true? Let me give some more gushings. From the New York Times, whose review’s title is Winosburg, Ohio; a play off of Sherwood Anderson’s classic Winesburg Ohio, save for the fact that Anderson was a very good writer, while Pollock is an anonymous MFA hack with little talent:
But whereas Anderson tucked the grotesque beneath the staid and steady public lives of his characters, doctors and other professional types among them, Pollock’s characters- addicts, runaways, squatters, rapists, aspiring molesters, many of them one signature away from internment in “the group home” - wear their grotesqueness high up on their sleeves. If Winesburg’s social constructs held the unutterable hungers of its citizenry in check, however loosely, in “Knockemstiff” there are no such constructs.
In fact, like most wannabe ‘realistic’ fiction, the only way Pollock can grasp at reality is by painting the lowest common denominator as the norm. Almost everyone is a sex, alcohol, or drug addict, and almost all of them are illiterate or semi-literate. The shadow of Raymond Carver is so huge in Pollock, yet so utterly shadow with none of the man, that the fact that so many critics go out of their way to claim Pollock is not like Carver is a dead giveaway that he is a talentless aper of the dead storyteller.
The Dayton Daily News writes:
In Pollock's fanciful imagination, this hardscrabble swath of Appalachia in south central Ohio is gritty and nasty and downright terrifying. His version of Knockemstiff is peopled by losers. Druggies, grifters, rapists, thieves, perverts, killers- every manner of dead-end situation ricochets across these pages with the lethal force of flaming cars skittering toward that looming abutment. No happy endings should be expected.
These stories detonate. Pollock's readers become horrified spectators of tragedy and disaster. We are mortified by the violence yet, strangely thrilled. There is that sense of being a voyeur observing repulsive but fascinating behavior. Pollock writes with incendiary verbal pyromania.
Well, no. The stories are so dull precisely because they are so utterly predictable. There is violence, stupidity, no introspection, and no real dialogue between characters- yes, even the working class debates real issues that affect them. They are not fascinating because the characters are not complex. Watching a retard suck his toe is not fascinating- gross; but dull, not fascinating. And, in the eighteen tales that comprised the collection, I knew, with almost no variance, how each and every tale would end. The reason? Because the stories are so cookie cutter formulaic. I have seen hundreds of bad tales like this on the Internet, dozens in writing workshops, and can say, without fear of contradiction, that there are likely fifty to a hundred thousand Donald Ray Pollocks enrolled in MFA writing programs across the country at any given moment. How this rube got the connections or luck to ‘make it’ in such a ‘competitive’ field is the real question.
A reviewer at The Oregonian writes (surprise, surprise):
Pollock's writing has been compared to that of Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Carver and Cormac McCarthy. He draws his readers in slowly, tangling them in the mundane toil of small-town life, before smacking them upside the head with something unexpected and primal. Small moments yield big surprises.
First, the book has eighteen stories in 203 pages, with plenty of white space. Thus, each tale, in larger than average font, in a smaller than average sized hardback book (8.5” x 5.5”), would be about six to seven single-spaced typewritten pages. There is no drawing of the reader in slowly, for that implies subtlety which, later on, I will show Pollock lacks. Second, there is little that is mundane about the toil of small town in this book- unless one considers public incest and rampant idiocy mundane. Third, there are no big surprises, whether propelled by small moments or not, for, as stated, every tale’s ending is telegraphed from within the first two pages. Predictability kills the ‘surprise factor,’ unless, of course, the reviewer is admitting her own lack or reading experience and/or acumen.
I could go on about the utter inanity of the book critics (how dare I append the term ‘literary’ to such swill?), but you get the point. Here is a brief list of other terms, modifiers, and ejaculations repeatedly used in this heavily reviewed debut defecation: direct, intense, fascinating, grim, shocking, knockout, amazing, violent, raw, unforgettable, terrifying, astonishing, raunchy, dark, and on and on. Yet, in Googling a few dozen reviews, here is something noticeable- not a single review used terms like well-written, excellent, good, well-drafted, well-wrought, great. You see, the unwritten rule in the blurb-filled fellatio that passes for literary criticism these days is that one never directly uses terms nor modifiers with an intellectual basis that can be directly refuted with ease when emotion-laden terms can suffice. Especially when writing about a bad writer who thinks that merely outraging someone emotionally is the equivalent of impressing someone intellectually, skillfully, and aesthetically. It is not. The fact is that Pollock is a 5th or 6th rate Raymond Carver wannabe. But, with a caveat. He is not a 5th rate Carver, the master storyteller, but a 5th rate Carver, the drunk whose mass of mediocre stories had to be reworked furiously by a number of incompetent editors.
Now, the proof. Here is a brief summary and selection from the eighteen tales. The first tale is called Real Life, and features characters that recur later in the book (a motif that occurs with multiple tales featuring differing recurring characters). I will not mention the names of the characters because there really is nothing individuated about them. The basics of this twelve page tale are that a derelict dad tries to impress his wimpy son by beating the hell out of a man at a drive-in theater in the 1960s. There are the usual pointless asides, veering into the grotesque, that pepper the tale; such as the old carny trick of the mother of the tale trying to stick a hot dog down her throat without mussing her lipstick. There are the typical poorly wrought sentences, such as this, the narrator;s description of his father: ‘For a few minutes, he stared at the screen and sank slowly into the padded upholstery like a setting sun.’ Why is it a bad sentence? Simple, it gilds the lily. Read this sentence: ‘For a few minutes, he stared at the screen and sank slowly into the upholstery.’ Note, this sentence is better, even though shorter, because a) there is no redundant modifier (padded- for all upholstery is padded, lest it would not be upholstery), and b) there is no adding on of a pointless cliché (like a setting sun). This example is merely one of dozens of examples of such amateurishly constructed sentences in the book.
This book is also larded with descriptions of characters that are pointless and veer into caricature for no purpose. When the father and the son first encounter the other man the father beats up, and his son, here is how Pollock describes the initial moment: ‘I zipped up and stepped out of the stall. The old man was handing a cigarette to a porky guy with sawdust combed through his greasy black hair. A purple stain shaped like a wedge of pie covered the belly of his dirty shirt.’ Now, this is bad writing not because the modifiers are redundant, nor because there are clichés- although greasy, black hair comes close. No, this is bad because these description exemplify one of the great flaws of modern Creative Writing Programs- the substitution of mere rote physical description for any relevance to the narrative, character development, or to serve as any setup to a future payoff at tale’s end. In short, this description serves no purpose save to portray the cartoonish ideas of the main characters about the seemingly equally cartoonish secondary characters. The tale does not benefit one iota from the knowledge of the man with the smoke, the state of the man’s hair, nor the color nor shape of the stain on the man’s shirt. While this, if it were the only instance of such a pointless digression, would not be a problem, in and of itself, the fact is that the tale, and the other seventeen tales that follow it in the book, consist mainly of such lackluster and pointless detailing substituting for any depth or insight into the characters. In fact, I’d estimate each tale could be whittled by anywhere from 30-70% with the elimination of such pointless descriptions, and the actual tales would all improve. And, as if to illustrate my above point, only half a page later, Pollock goes on even a longer and more pointless digression: ‘Suddenly, a man wearing black-framed glasses stepped from his place in line at the urinal and tapped my old man on the shoulder. He was the biggest sonofabitch I’d ever seen; his fat head nearly touched the ceiling. His arms were the size of fence posts. A boy my size stood behind him, wearing a pair of brightly colored swimming trunks and a T-shirt that had a faded picture of davy Crockett on the front of it. He had a waxy crew cut and orange pop stains on his chin. Every time he took a breath, a Bazooka bubble bloomed from his mouth like a round pink flower. He looked happy, and I hated him instantly.’ Now, is this atrocious writing, in and of itself? No- it’s merely generic, but, again, it’s the aggregation of dozens and dozens of superfluous passages like this which make Pollock’s prose such a slog. After all, if one is chewing Bazooka bubble gum, and you say it blooms and looks like a flower, need the color pink be mentioned? No. And, furthermore, there is not a detailed thing within this passage that serves any further point in the narrative. This tale, and all of Pollock’s tales in this book, are not Hitchcock films where such details play any significant role (i.e- real clue or MacGuffin). And, the point of all of this is that this sort of writing is such standard issue writing program tripe that its utter triteness totally belies the claims that Pollock is somehow a writer of originality or power. In fact, he is wholly generic, and indistinguishable from the thousands of poor deluded souls that apply for MFA programs.
The first tale ends in this manner, after the father has beaten the other man, showed pride at his son’s following his lead with the other man’s boy, and is having sex with the narrator’s mother: ‘As my parents’ bed thumped loudly against the floor in the next room, I lapped the blood off my knuckles. The dried flakes dissolved in my mouth, turning my spit to syrup. Even after I’d swallowed all the blood, I kept licking my hands. I tore at the skin with my teeth. I wanted more. I would always want more.’ Reading this, an astute and well-read reader is left not knowing whether to laugh or weep at the utter banality and over the top melodrama of this scene, so laced with the most absurdly puerile Freudian symbolism. I chose to grin, and move on. And, if you really need an explanation as to why this writing is so bad, then all I can say is spend a decade reading fiction- from Cervantes to the stuff published today, and if you still have a query, get a lobotomy.
Now, as I write of the remaining tales, I will spare you the detailed analysis I’ve provided here, and only summarize plots, and give you the three or four most egregious examples of bad writing. The second tale is called Dynamite Hole- a play off a location and female genitalia. In short, a homeless voyeur watches a brother and sister nakedly and incestuously copulate in an open field until he decided to kill them. The fornicators scream, ‘Jesus save me,’ as they do the deed, a phrase that the murderer ends the tale with- surprise, surprise. Here’s the fact- if I told you that a tale featured incestors who screamt something in climax, and that their killer would utter something at tale’s end, how many of you would not guess that the thing uttered by the killer would be what the incestors’ uttered? Exactly.
The third tale is the titular one, Knockemstiff, the name of the Ohio burg where all the tales are set. In it, a passerby takes a photo of a loser and the gal he lusts for, who is leaving town for parts unknown. It’s the best of the three tales, thus far, but larded, again, with far too much pointless description of the outer world, and nothing of the perceptual world of the narrator. Hair’s Fate follows a runaway boy who masturbates on his sister’s doll. He is picked up by a gay trucker (what other kind are there in stories like this?) and the tale ends right before the moment of sodomy. The ending of this story is known the minute the trucker appears. Pills is about druggies- the truth is that, now, a few days after having read the story, I barely recall it, save that it suffered from all the above mentioned flaws, and it’s inanely ‘precious’ ending: ‘Looking up, I saw the red blinking lights of an airliner, miles above me, heading west. I’d never been on a plane, never been out of Ohio for that matter, but I imagined big-shot bastards on vacation, movie stars with beautiful lives. I wondered if they could see the glow of Frankie’s fire [a dead, unplucked chicken] from up there. I wondered what they would think of us.’ Given all the talk, this Presidential election year, and whether or not the candidates are too elitist and tied to the two coasts, this naked plea for the worth of ‘flyover states’ is strained to the breaking point, especially since Pollock plays up every cliché that reinforces said characterizations. Enough said. Gigantomachy is about a son who sexually thrills his mother by threatening her while playing the part of her favorite serial killer. This is no longer, technically, grotesque, nor even absurdity, but sheer silliness. Schott’s Bridge follows some losers who have sex with an old woman and contemplate suicide. Why? Because they are losers. There is no reason for such characters nor such a tale. It is, again, just silly, and ill wrought. Lard follows more losers, in fact, they are such losers that they even refer to a guy who might lose his virginity as bustin’ his cherry, even though that expression is only applicable to the female sex- i.e.- the hymen. I won’t even bother you with the pointless plot. Simply bear in mind all the flaws mentioned earlier, recall the misapplied sexual metaphor, and read this last sentence: ‘He kept throwing them [darts], as hard as he could, until they had all disappeared into the darkness that surrounded him.’ Ooh, ain’t you scared of the dark? Apparently Pollock is not content with aping the vapidity and bad dialogue of the Dave Eggers/James Frey/David Foster Wallace crowd, but feels a need to rival TC Boyle and Joyce Carol Oates in the trite ending department, as well.
Moving on, Fish Sticks is another tale that follows a recurring character- a demented woman who carries fish sticks about. Ok, an interesting premise, if some insight can be provided. Instead, she gets fucked, and an old man performs fellatio on a young man, and the tale ends with no real end. The second half of the book opens with Pollock’s most lauded tale, Bactine. Why this is so lauded is a mystery. It’s no better than any of the other tales. In this story, the first aid medicine becomes an ingredient for getting high (didn’t see that comin’, didja?). There’s all sorts of non-intriguing intrigue, and then, at the end of the next tale, Discipline, another druggy loser (a steroid freak) decides to spend the night naked in a McDonald’s parking lot (don’t ask why). By morning, he (presumably from the Great Beyond) tells us that, when he tried to move (cliché alert), ‘his body shattered into a thousand tiny pieces.’ Boy, Jimmy Frey is stroking himself about now. Assailants is the further adventures of Fish Sticks girl, Rainy Sunday lives down to its title’s novelty- literally nothing happens, and not in the good, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn sort of way. It opens with his real ‘grabber’ of a sentence: ‘It was one o’clock in the morning on a rainy Sunday, and Sharon was sitting at the kitchen table debating whether or not to stuff another slice of American cheese into her mouth when Aunt Joan called, begging her niece to ride into town.’ Don’t you just wanna find out more? Holler follows more losers strung out on Demerol, and ends with a faux poetic ‘moment’, with a loser trying to eat the skull of a dead bird. Why? Because that’s, like, deep and poetic, dude. Got it?
I Start Over is probably the best and most notable story in the book, yet it’s still not a good story compared to truly good writing. It has a novel idea but sloppy execution. In it, a fat man swells his dick over threatening some teenagers who make fun of a son of his who is mentally handicapped, and feels as if his life has begun anew. It ends, naturally, with a Lowest Common Denominator moment- a car chase, but it’s the only glimmer that Pollock had an idea worth a damn in this book. Yet, the same plethora of clichés and pointless descriptions abound. Blessed follows another petty criminal and another retard, and has a scene where sadistic cops force a man to shit diarrhetically. The retard seems to lack the power of speech, but, at tale’s end, and given the abounding clues within the tale, you just know the kid can speak, he just refuses to speak to his dad. Honolulu is another pointless tale void of depth and character-developing digressions, and ends with a sentence that includes yet another insertion of pointless clichés: ‘And just like that, for one brief beautiful moment, as the crashing rays turn the kitchen a bright blood-red, she forgets everything.’ C’mon, now, you can spot’em, right? The final tale in the book is The Fights, wherein the young kid from the very first tale, Real Life, is all grown up, and thirtysomthing years later, is- you got it, a petty thief, alcoholic, and loser, who has nothing for contempt for his dying dad, reduced to watching television boxing with the speaker’s loser brother. Without even detailing the tale’s plot, the end is already doubly bad- for it is predictable that such a work would naturally go circular, and pick up the opening tale’s losers, and the tale itself follows the book’s execrable pattern of portraying outrageous losers as if the norm. The third predictable and trite thing it offers is this, the story’s and book’s final scene, again, seen coming from within the first page of the tale: ‘He (the dad) took a deep breath, and I took one with him. The TV light brightened and then dimmed. Tossing my cigarette in the grass, I turned and started toward my car. The fight was nearly over.’ At this point, one actually hopes the dope will suicide, but he won’t. He will, like all of Pollock’s anorexically sketched characters, just reappear in an even worse tale in a future book- likely the supposed novel about a serial killer Pollock is penning. Hey, I heard that groan!
All in all, the book rates about a 40 out of 100, with the second half a little bit better than the first, a 50 vs. a 30 of 100. That’s because three or four of the later tales have a brief moment where a good writer may have salvaged the tale into something passable, but where the rote, banal, and formulaic Pollock simply can only let his ragged tale’s inertia draw him to the most obvious ends. Also, there are a few minor hints that Pollock might be capable of learning something of story structure, or even have some rudimentary impulses that go beyond the predictable in these later tales. Yet, it’s so fleeting, for the book never coheres as a work of singularity nor substance, never establishes a rationale, beyond its location, and, amazingly, Pollock is so damned clueless as to how bad his book is, and how ludicrous his tales are, that in the book’s Acknowledgments, he types this:
First, I’d like to say that, though the stories in this book were inspired by a real place, Knockemstiff, Ohio, all the characters are fictional. I grew up in the holler, and my family and our neighbors were good people who never hesitated to help someone in a time of need.
What is amazing is that Pollock actually seems to believe that anyone who is not retarded would think that there’s a semblance of reality in these puerile stories meant to titillate a twelve year old, presumably because in interviews of his own life, he was a moronic druggy working class loser like they are (shocking, eh?). In fact, Knockemstiff is not even a real place any longer, but a ghost town. It’s enough to make one believe that there might be something more than meets the eye here, that all the bullshit praise from the idiotic critics were just evidence that this was some sort of grand literary hoax, like the Araki Yasusada Hoax perpetrated on the American Poetry Review in the mid-1990s, or the Ern Malley Hoax that befuddled mid-20th Century Australia. But, alack, not. Pollock is all too depressingly real as a representative of all that is wrong with published fiction today- a bad and generic writer (although, to be fair, he is a better writer than Dave Eggers or James Frey, and just a notch below TC Boyle) who gets published because of connections and the blurbery of a bad, but celebrated, writer, and then gets a plethora of Amazon ‘buzz reviews’ from friends.
Yet, at the end of the book there is not a character, a line, nor a moment that sticks with the reader. And even though I saw every tales’ end coming from within the first page (something dull, dumb, both, or nothing at all), within a day or two the tales’ narratives had totally vanished from my mind. I Post-it noted the tales as I read lest I would have totally forgotten all but three or four of the tales’ arcs. There is no surrealism afoot, no wit, no real grittiness- just undisciplined, sloppy, yet predictable stories about cardboard cutout characters that simply cannot exist in large numbers in one place. It’s sort of the inverse of what a daytime soap opera does- put a bunch of wealthy, attractive people in one place, where they all share each others’ beds and foibles. Are there losers such as Pollock writes of? Of course, but there are one or two in each small town, not dozens upon dozens, and even the unemployed or overweight will dialogue with themselves. It will not reach Shakespearean soliloquizing, but it is far richer and genuine than this degrading, sex-obsessed (sex featured includes that with retards, children, siblings, parents, old men, inanimate objects, fetishism, homosexuality, and- well, we are spared bestiality and necrophilia), and worse- ill written, tripe. Like the puerile filmmaker, Tim Burton, or like a male Mary Gaitskill, Pollock is constitutionally incapable of subtlety, and overdoes the oddities to the point of weariness. Along with all the aforementioned flaws is the knowledge that these repeated and multiple failures all point the way to the inescapable fact that Pollock is simply a very bad writer, not a writer of promise, potential, nor talent, who just has an annoying flaw or two.
Thankfully, after the serial killer novel bombs, and Palahniuk moves on, and the publicity machine beancounters realize they’ve wasted enough money trying to promote this one trick phony loser into a literary star, and move on to the next MFA puppy mill denizen, the generic Pollock will simply fade, and his books will be pulped and yellow, recalled only in the web search engines that will eventually record every syllable of cultural detritus from Gutenberg on. But, while he still has his few seconds in the glow, be a responsible citizen and aesthete. Go to his nominal website, email him with condemnation, tell him what you think of his garbage, and, if you would, please tell him I sent you, as part of my continuing mission to rid the world of bad art, and the biases, sloths, and cronyism that creates and fosters it. It’ll be your good deed for the day. Cockamstiff (which is what Knockemstiff should really be named, since Pollock so badly wants to play the badass, dickwaving literary rebel) is simultaneously pretentious and pulpy, fast-moving and dull, ludicrous and predictable, obnoxious and pointless, but always simply bad. It is poorly written prose about paper-thin caricatures involved in plots that ten year olds would yawn to. Damn, I smell a Pulitzer!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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