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Book Review: Knockemstiff

January 8, 2013

Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff is a loosely connected collection of eighteen short stories that is guaranteed to leave you affected. How you’ll be affected is up to you and where your head is at.

The characters in these well-written and absorbing stories are at once frightened and frightening, insecure, damaged, imperfect and sometimes simply downright destroyed. “Big” Bernie Givens pretty much sums up life in and around Knockemstiff, Ohio, as well as the tone of the collection, in the story I Start Over when he says: “I’m beginning to believe that anything I do to extend my life is just going to be outweighed by the agony of living it.”

This is a dark, disturbing and depressing collection. The stories are brilliantly written and so vivid you can almost smell the stale and bitter breath of the characters jumping off the page at you. Worse, as bleak and distressing as these stories are, and as vile and unlikeable as some of these characters are, you realize there’s a part of each one of these well-crafted monsters hiding away somewhere inside you. If you never had anything to pray for before, read this book and you will.

Donald Ray Pollock, with Knockemstiff and his brilliant follow-up novel The Devil All the Time, is a must-read author. Mr. Pollock is not for everyone, but if you’re ready to explore – and maybe confront – those dark holes and realities in the world around you (and possibly within yourself) then he’s an author for you. Just be sure to keep some Mark Twain or maybe some James Thurber around for a follow-up to help you get your head leveled again.

Just a final note: not that I particularly liked bologna to begin with, but I don’t think I’ll look at a stick of the stuff again without a certain feeling of nausea and revulsion after reading this collection.

This is excellent stuff. If you can handle it.

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