Collection of Short Stories, Donald Ray Pollock, KNOCKEMSTIFF (NY: Doubleday, 2008)
With this, his first publication, Donald Ray Pollock, native of Knockemstiff, Ohio, has perfected the genre known as “hillbilly sleaze.”
The first story in the collection, “Real Life,” is typical in that it features the kind of characters who populate all of the stories. The description of a friend whom Vernon encounters in the rest room is typical of Knockemstiff denizens in general: “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.”
The first line: “My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old.”
Full of hard-scrabble rednecks, the stories, as this one, sometimes feature a narrator of sensibility. In “Real Life” this is the boy narrator, nervous Bobby, whose life with his alcoholic father has him in the habit of “chewing the skin off my fingers.”
A typical male representative of the metropolis of Knockemstiff, the father, Vernon, is tough as nails, a man who hates movies and make-believe. As he puts it, “What the hell’s wrong with real life?”
The story describes a scene that Vernon creates in “real life,” when, drunk in the restroom of the drive-in and mouthing obscenities, he is accosted by another man. A big irony is that the men in the rest room enjoy the ensuing fight much more than Godzilla on the big screen outside.
Both men have their sons with them in the rest room. The other man, as large as a giant, doesn’t like Vern swearing in front of his son. After appearing to back down from a confrontation, Vern sucker punches the giant in the head. Then, after the giant is on the floor he kicks his ribs and punches his face “until a tooth popped through one meaty cheek.” Other men have to pull him off the fallen giant before he kills him.
At this point the giant’s son attacks Bobby, and the old man forces him to fight: “You back down I’ll blister your ass.” As it turns out, Bobby bloodies the nose of the bigger boy and wins the fight.
While others call for an ambulance, Vernon and Bobby jump back in their car with Bobby’s mother and flee the drive-in. For the old man, who constantly complains about his son’s lack of toughness, “This is the best night of my fucking life.” When his wife objects to his drunken shenanigans the old man cracks her in the face with a forearm.
The story ends up being about a way of coming of age in the trailer-trash world of Knockemstiff. The meek Bobby has something of an epiphany in blood. “Real Life” ends with him in bed, contemplating his victory in the fight, which, apparently for the first time ever, has earned him the approval of his father. Interesting developments for Bobby’s future are suggested by the final lines.
“…I lapped the [other boy’s] 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.”
This tale of a gentle character’s baptism in violence reminds me of a story by the great Russian short-story writer, Isaac Babel: “My First Goose.”