Courtesy of author

Donald Ray Pollock Shows What Real America Looks Like

The Ohio found in his latest novel, ‘The Heavenly Table,’ is filled with violence, desperation, and humor.

You can pinpoint the origins of Donald Ray Pollock’s literary genius directly to a town in Ohio called Knockemstiff. Pollock was born and raised there, and worked in a nearby paper mill for three decades. With a population just under 60,000, Knockemstiff is the kind of town you don’t typically find in contemporary American literary fiction; half-rotten by meth, starved for hope, and entirely broke, it’s about as far away from the world presented in Jonathan Franzen’s novels as you can imagine.

Pollock knew he wanted to be a writer, but he didn’t know how to be a writer. So he sat down in a chair at a typewriter—the secret to writing, he told me in an interview in 2008, is “I mean, you got to stay in the chair”—and typed out stories by Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, and Richard Yates, word for word. “I wasn’t really writing,” he explained. “I was trying to figure out what the fuck you’d do when you write.” Eventually, thanks to a program funded by the local mill, he went to school part-time at Ohio State and went on to get an MFA.

Pollock titled his first collection of stories Knockemstiff, and except for a piece of one story titled “Honolulu,” the entirety of the book takes place in that Ohio town. The characters are blue-collar, prone to eating bologna, given to occasional fits of violence. It was one of the best debuts of the first decade of the 21st century. His first novel, The Devil All the Time, is about a serial killer in Knockemstiff, and his newest, The Heavenly Table, from which he will read this week, tells the story of a family feud set in the early days of the 20th century.

All of Pollock’s interests are on display in Table: the effect of technology on work, the rippling impact of violence, the desperate decisions that lead to crimes, and the difference between the America of our dreams and the real America of the heartland. If this sounds way too serious, I’m failing at my job, because Pollock does have a sense of humor—one that is dark and broad. For example, characters in this book are obsessed with a pulp-fiction hero named Bloody Bill Bucket.

When Knockemstiff debuted, Pollock faced a lot of comparisons with Sherwood Anderson and his classic novel Winesburg, Ohio. It’s easy to see why: big casts of interconnected characters, small-town America, Ohio. And Pollock himself seemed (rightfully) flattered by the comparison. But if Pollock is a modern-day Anderson, it’s by way of authors like Harry Crews, Chuck Palahniuk, or the Bret Easton Ellis of American Psycho. While Pollock doesn’t revel in violence for entertainment’s sake, he’s not afraid to painstakingly lay out a gruesome scene to make a point. America’s heart has a hole in it, and the blood is getting absolutely everywhere. Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave., 624-6600, elliottbaybook.com. Free. All ages. 7 p.m., Mon., July 25.

More in Arts & Culture

Trailer Park Blues

Megan Griffiths’s Sadie taps into the dark side of teenage angst through Sophia Mitri Schloss’s strong lead performance.

Carol Burnett brings her comedic yarns to Benaroya Hall on Sunday.
Pick List: Carol Burnett, ‘Oslo,’ Sheku Kanneh-Mason

The week’s best entertainment options.

From the collection of Robert E. Jackson
The Voyeurism of Polaroids: Personal, Private, Painterly

The collection of authorless snapshots at Bellevue Arts Museum raises questions about our relationship with instant photography.

Death Cab for Cutie Headlines Deck the Hall Ball 2018

The annual 107.7 The End holiday bash moves to WaMu Theater.

Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are beacons of light in <em>Rafiki</em>. Image courtesy Film Movement
Getting It Twisted

What to watch for at this year’s edition of Twist: A Queer Film Festival.

Ryan Gosling blasts off as Neil Armstrong in First Man. Photo by Daniel McFadden
Sea of Tranquility

In Damien Chazelle’s ‘First Man,’ Ryan Gosling delivers a fascinating blank slate portrayal of astronaut Neil Armstrong.

The new Chris Cornell statue resides outside of MoPop. Photo courtesy MoPop
Seattle Rock Star Statue Breakdown

The new Chris Cornell statue at MoPop got us wondering about the statues honoring local music legends.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga as star-crossed lovers. Photo by Neal Preston
Not the Brightest Star in the Sky

Lady Gaga shines in the otherwise underwhelming ‘A Star Is Born.’

Jazz harpist 
Brandee Younger. 
                                Photo by Kyle Pompey
A Beginner’s Guide to Earshot Jazz Festival

A look a seven of the most intriguing performers at Seattle’s annual month-long jazz celebration.

Valtesse doesn’t mess around with its elaborate cabaret style. Photo by Jules Doyle
Valtesse’s Art of the Tease

The new female-driven cabaret company strives for a noir cinematic sophistication.