Wednesday, July 20, 2016

An American tale that isn't pretty but beautiful

The Heavenly Table

By Donald Ray Pollock


Publisher: Doubleday

Pub.Date: July 12, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


 Southern Gothic is alive and well and generously dosed with a bit of Hillbilly Crime Noir and Redneck Existentialism in The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock. This is his third book and with it, he has pretty much cemented his status as the 21th century’s answer to William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy all rolled into one. In his first two books, He introduced us to the town of Knockemstiff, Ohio and in this one, he turns Meade, Ohio of 1917 into a tableau of down-and-outs, barely surviving farmers and townsmen, and the outcasts beyond and between the law.

In The Heavenly Table we are introduced to the Jewett Family, Pearle and his three sons named Kane, Cob, and Chimney, who barely make a living sharecropping and often surviving on anything they can scrounge off the land. Pearle tells his boys they suffer now so they can eat off the heavenly table after death. Yet when their father passes away, they decide to emulate their fictional Pulp Western book Hero Bloody Bill Bucket and take to robbing banks. With the reluctant acceptance of slow-in-the-mind Cob, they are willing to sacrifice the heavenly table for more earthly comforts even if it means violence and bloodshed. Their exploits take them from Alabama and on the way to Canada until everyone meets up in Meade, Ohio.

By “everyone”, I mean a slew of characters ranging from a farmer and his wife who loses their savings, a gay soldier who hopes to meet his death in glory in the battlefields of World War II, an outhouse inspector cursed with a large piece of biological equipment, a black out of jail bum who is easily used and abused by pretty much everyone, and a bartender with a gruesome secret. While the Jewett brothers are the focal point of the novel, Pollock weaves all these tales together to form a world of his own with a desperation all its own.

Pollock’s world view may seem a bit rough. There is a lot of violence and a lot of cold-blooded and mean behavior but it is tempered with the author’s uniquely dark humor that acknowledged a good human nature trying to dig its way out. There is just enough tenderness in the hard lives of these characters to keep you interested and involved. There may be a lot of cruelty but few of them are evil. Most of them are surviving in the only way they know how. That is why I found this novel to be so incredible. The insightful prose never stops. There are many eloquent passages about the nature of man and society…

“As blind as he was to most of his defects, even Powys knew that the first thing a man lost when he entered politics was his humanity.”

One of the few comparisons to Pollock’s Ohio tableau in literature may be Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, although Pollock’s Meade and, the earlier used Knockemstiff are actual Ohio locations. Both literary landscapes take a slice of America and populate it with characters that sing off the pages. Yet Pollack has the cynicism of Flannery O’Connor and the sparse realism of Cormac McCarthy to spice up his form of storytelling. And storytelling is exactly what the author is doing by weaving a variety of stories to make an exquisite whole.

Donald Ray Pollock, for my money, is the most exciting American author actively writing. He has solidified his own unique style with three books. Any of the three are well worth reading but The Heavenly Table is the most complex and original of the three. If this doesn’t make the top five novels on any reviewers list this year then something is not right with the world.

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