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Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock

Doubleday, 384 pages, $27.95

There’s a lot to be said for having lived another life before taking up a pen and writing critically praised books. Donald Ray Pollock grew up in Knockemstiff, Ohio. (Not so strange, then, is the title of his first book, a short story collection named “Knockemstiff.”) He worked as a laborer and truck driver until he was 45. He then received an MFA from Ohio State and began to write. Like Athena, born fully formed, Pollock’s books arrived fully formed. No fumbling around for him. For “The Heavenly Table,” a very different crime novel set in an impoverished part of the South in 1917, Pollock wrote what he knows: people and their miseries, and put it in an interesting time period, at the start of World War I.

“The Heavenly Table” contains the stories of many people from all walks of life. Some of those stories are longer than others, but even the vignettes are mighty worthy. The characters who stay the longest and whose peregrinations provide the thread that binds all the other characters are the Jewett brothers: Cain, Cob, and Chimney. At the start of the story, they and their pop, Pearl, are dirt-poor, starving tenant farmers.

When Pearl departs his mortal coil, the brothers leave to find their fortune in Canada. To finance their dream, they begin to rob banks and businesses in obeisance to their hero, Bloody Bill Bucket. Cain is the only one who learned to read. Over and over he read to his brothers the one book they had, a dime-novel about an adventurous scallawag, Bill Bucket. (When the book is finally lost, one of the brothers says that it doesn’t make any difference because they’ve all memorized it.)

Also running through the book are the stories of farmers Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler, fiddled out of their life savings by a traveling con man; sanitation inspector Jasper Cone, a lonely soul who takes his job seriously; Sugar, a poor black boy who ran away from his southern home to make it rich in Detroit and is now a poor black man running back to his childhood home; Lt. Bovard, a young man escaping a “Dear John” situation (and an incipient awareness that he is a homosexual) by joining the army and hoping to get sent to the Front for a glorious death; various inhabitants of The Whore Barn; and Pollard, a creepy bartender. Most of their stories take place in Ohio where their paths cross, however briefly.

As the brothers become more worldly and much more notorious, their poignant loyalty to each other remains. As the number of those who hunt them grows, it is easy to envision the inevitability of a Butch Cassidy/Sundance Kid ending, but hope springs eternal that the Canada of their dreams is only a whisper away.

Pollock combines the grittiness, despair, humor, craftiness, resilience, cruelty, and compassion of ordinary people to make a strangely wonderful novel. His strength lies in his ability to juggle the stories of so many disparate people in an artful but natural way and in his superior writing skills. Pollock says one of the tricks he used to learn how to write was to take a short work by a master writer and type it out. He learned structure and dialogue by doing this. Later he learned what voice suited him best.

Pollock can intimately put us within the impoverished world of the mostly illiterate southern tenant farmer and the middle class one of a college-educated military man. He can describe the daily humiliation of being black and poor. He can show us big and small examples of the devil’s work, demon rum, and godforsaken poverty.

Here's a little story within the grander one:
Cob didn’t say anything. In fact, it is doubtful that he heard a word that was being said, for he was now holding a ham the size of a newborn infant. It was like something he’d imagine you’d find on the heavenly table, in between the roast beef and the spare ribs, but instead it was right here, in his dirty hands. He had heard Pearl talk about sin and gluttony and false riches enough to know he should toss it to the ground and stomp it, but, shit, what would be the sense of doing that now? He had just killed a man. He was going to hell anyway. Raising it up to his mouth, he tore a big hunk off with his teeth and began to chew.

MBTB star!

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