A review of


by Donald Ray Pollock

Central question: Is hell necessary if Knockemstiff exists?
Format: 224 pp., hardcover; Size: 5 ½" x 8 ¼"; Price: $22.95; Publisher: Doubleday; Editor: Gerry Howard; Book design: Michael Windsor; Typeface: Eidectic Neo; Author’s first job: Fifth hand on the #6 paper machine; Representative passage: “The last renters of the trailer had cut a hole in the floor for a toilet after the plumbing went bad. When we moved in, the landlord reluctantly fixed the busted pipes and Dee covered the hole with a piece of plywood that sagged and creaked whenever somebody stepped on it. On a warm day, the stench of strangers’ waste hung in the narrow rooms like the thick fog of failure.”

Knockemstiff, Ohio, is a real place. According to a website called ePodunk, “tradition says the town was named for the kick of its moonshine and the fighting ability of its toughs.” Donald Ray Pollock grew up there, and before obtaining an MFA from Ohio State University he worked for thirty years in a paper mill. Located near the intersection of Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia, Pollock’s Knockemstiff is a brutal and terrifying place. It’s a safe bet his hometown won’t be making him a parade grand marshall anytime soon.

Knockemstiff (the book) is either eighteen short stories or eighteen chapters in a loosely constructed novel of brawlers and speed freaks and rape victims spanning the latter half of the twentieth century. The opening story, “Real Life,” takes place in 1965: a young boy makes his dad proud by kicking ass in a drive-in men’s room.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Suzanne Kleid

Suzanne Kleid co-edited the anthology Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans: The Best of McSweeney’s Humor Category. Her book reviews appear twice a month on the Arts & Culture blog at KQED.org.

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