A Good Book Hides Behind its ‘Hillbilly’ Hype
A Contrary review by Shaindel Beers

Donald Ray Pollock’s first story collection, Knockemstiff, is already making a stir in the literary world. Knockemstiff has been lauded in The New York Times, while The Wall Street Journal has named Pollock a “new American voice.” However, it isn’t Pollock’s writing that has stirred such responses, even though it brims with incest, drug use, and mid-American hopelessness. Instead, the media have focused on Pollock’s blue-collar background, heavily marketed by Doubleday. “It's a great story, yeah,” John Pitts, the publisher's marketing director, told the Los Angeles Times. “That he was working the same plant where his grandfather worked, recovering alcoholic, all this stuff. It's a great publicity hook to go out with.” The hook has transformed Pollock into almost as a cultural anomaly—a man from a small town who dropped out of high school yet managed to write a book. No matter that in the interim he earned his G.E.D and college degree and is now chasing an MFA in graduate school.
        In the title story of the collection, a couple from California stops at a convenience store to take pictures of small-town life, and the double-consciousness underlying the book becomes apparent. Pollock is watching us watch him as he spins these tales. The woman from California asks Hank, the first person narrator of the story, to pose for a picture under the town’s sign, and Tina Elliot, who is leaving town for a supposedly better life, asks to be in the picture, explaining, “This might be my last chance to get my picture took with a dumb hillbilly.” Pollock’s adeptness at multiple perspectives comes out in the next paragraph:
“Your last chance?” the woman says, looking up from the viewfinder. “What do you mean by that?” Her voice sounds a little aggravated at first, but then I see her look down at Tina’s dirty bare feet and smile.
A few paragraphs later, Hank’s consciousness of how outsiders see the citizens of Knockemstiff hits home: “I think about us putting on a show out front today for that California woman, and all those photographs she took.” The characters in Knockemstiff aren’t yokels with nothing to say; they’re prophets no one has thought to pay mind to.
Nearly all of the stories in Knockemstiff have these revelations woven in, which feel epiphanic the second you catch onto them but afterwards prove deceivingly simple. For instance, readers will discover that the father in one story is the young son in a previous story, but only through the minutest detail.
Donald Ray Pollock is the real deal. I would recommend Knockemstiff to readers who can handle eighteen stories set in a town supposedly named after a threat from one woman to “knock the other one stiff.” This is a rough and tumble collection. I just hope readers don’t flock to Pollock as an oddity, a one-trick pony relying on his blue-collar background because it’s exotic to much of the literary world—or even worse, for Pollock to become a writer who isn’t allowed to write beyond the borders of his “holler” in Southern Ohio because that’s all readers expect of him.

Shaindel Beers is the poetry editor of Contrary.

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Donald Ray Pollock
2008, Doubleday






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