Donald Ray Pollock’s, Knockemstiff, is an exceptionally devastating, unquestionably American, undeniably well-crafted collection of linked stories that, if you dare to finish it, will leave you feeling utterly gutted. And this is a good thing. You should feel gutted after you read it and you should read it.
It’s a brave book, for while it is not about politics it is, for sure, a political book. This is a book about ignorance and violence. This is a book in which children are left un-nurtured and unloved and unfed and unclothed. This is a book in which women are absent or beaten and used for sex. This is a book in which men are mostly predatory and even those who would rather be another way, find they have no choice but follow suit in the predation.
Most importantly: this is a book about the results of poverty. If you grew up in poverty or violence or ignorance or one or the other of these things, you will find some semblance of your reality in these pages. You will recognize your oppressor or you will witness the time you oppressed out of your fear and frustration.
Indeed, this is a book that is sadly relevant in the US today given our current economic climate (not to mention headlines like this one: Between haves, have-nots, an ever greater gulf).
This book is not entertaining, but it is instructive. This book is not beautiful, but it is beautifully written. You will find yourself sucked into the holler so much so that even the voices from these pages take over your thoughts (for example, I killed a mosquito as it bit me the other day and as I did, I thought, “Damn skeeter!”). And still, even within all of this bleakness there is redemption, particularly when the boy from the first story, becomes the man in the final story—the one who makes the choice to walk away from the holler rather than let it kill him.
I can’t tell you that you’re going to love or even like this book–there is language you won’t like and situations you find appalling. You will be grossed out and furious and depressed. You will want to put the book down but find that you can’t. You will wish that you didn’t now know what you know. But I can promise you this: you will never forget this book once you’ve read it and you shouldn’t forget it. Let it live in you until you find a way to help others out of their situation. Let it live in you until you walk away from your own hopeless situation. Let it live in you until you rise up and make a change. Let it live in you.