Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock

sor·row (n.)


A feeling of deep distress caused by loss, disappointment, or other misfortune suffered by oneself or others.

Appearances are deceiving; the world can be a beautiful place in that way. Despite my rather innocuous physicality and mild disposition (or perhaps because of…?), my mind is a far darker place than my tiny library-loving, baby-faced appearance would lead you to believe. Similarly, the innocent cover of Donald Ray Pollack’s collection of short stories will deceive you; it may lead you to believe you were going to read stories set in bucolic middle America. Not so. While the town sign for Knockemstiff, Ohio graces the front of the book, it gives no indication of the truly wonderful, truly devious stories inside. If there’s a word to describe the mood of ‘Knockemstiff’, it’s sorrow. But sorrow is not the only thing you’ll find. In this slim volume you’ll find abuse, addiction, despair, racism, incest, tragedy, and yes, comedy too.


Knockemstiff, Ohio, the town Pollock lived in as a child, is, fictionally at least, the home the woeful, the misbegotten, and the deranged. Located in a holler (hollow) in the southern part of the state, poverty, abuse, and addiction are rampant with little opportunity to break the cycle. Miserable children become miserable addicts or miserable parents and no one ever escapes. This collection of 18 intertwined stories will not inspire you, will not teach you anything legal, and as another reviewer put it, if given the option to a) live in Knockemstiff, Ohio or b) have your naughty bits gnawed to shreds by a ravenous badger – the correct selection is b.  In short, those who find fornicating with one’s sister particularly offensive may want to find another book.

I was coming down off the Mitchell Flats with three arrowheads in my pocket and a dead copperhead hung around my neck like an old woman’s scarf when I caught a boy named Truman Mackey fucking his own little sister in the Dynamite Hole.

To his much deserved credit, Pollock never takes it too far. Yes, these stories are dark and yes, they shed light on human depravity, but they are neither gratuitous, nor overly graphic. They are stark, matter of fact portraits of the horrific cycles we can get stuck in. He never asks the reader for sympathy, nor does he offer any himself. The stories are gritty, real, and not for the faint of heart. Some are funny, some are sad, some are horrifying, but all are melancholy. The residents are not entirely ignorant of their actions.

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.

As the stories are intertwined, they are best read in order, but they don’t have to be. My favorites: Hair’s Fate, Gigantohmachy, Lard, Bactine, Assailants, and Holler. Bactine is one of the best, but my favorite might be Assailants. In it, Del has a brief moment of clarity and remorse – it’s beautiful, but the thought vanishes as quickly as it came.

Looking at his daughter, Del suddenly felt a great sorrow well up inside him. Falling to his knees, he was just beginning to ask the baby for her forgiveness when he heard his wife tromp back down the hall and slam the bedroom door shut. Both father and daughter jumped at the sound, one still flush with innocence, the other guilty of a thousand trespasses.

One of my favorite novels of all time is Pollock’s ‘The Devil All the Time’. I consider it a must read for anyone who even mildly likes dark fiction. While ‘Knockemstiff’ is not quite as good, it’s still absolutely worth reading. If you were to create a spectrum of dark fiction, Pollock would fall between Harry Crew’s affectionate treatment of those scorned in society and Chuck Palahniuk’s impersonal treatment of vacuous humans. It’s an immensely readable, disheartening, and not entirely inaccurate portrait of impoverished life in middle America. 4.5/5.

I know there’s at least one or two of you out there who like dark fiction. This one’s for you. Will anyone be reading Knockemstiff*? Moreover, anyone else watch Justified? Because if you’re not watching Elmore Leonard’s oxycontin fueled, gun wielding, justice seeking creation, you need to go do so – it might be the best thing on television. ‘Twould go well with Donald Ray Pollock’s books.

Grilled Pizza

The food in the novel is portrayed in such a way that you would not want to eat it. Ever. Thus I am recommending my favorite comfort food, Margharita Pizza, but with a twist – it’s grilled (in honor of the summer season). For your information, your SyFy movie name is you biggest fear and your favorite food. Mine is AliensMargharitaPizza.

*This book is from my personal library.


11 thoughts on “Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock

    1. Truly, I will never understand the US. I’m very curious to read Mateship with Birds, somehow I don’t think it will offend my delicate eyes. But, really, if American Psycho and Imperial Bedrooms can be published, I don’t see what the hold up with Mateship with Birds is…?

      The US has an odd acceptance of violence. Violence is okay, even if it involves sex. Sex just for the sake of sex (or with a minor present, but hey, let’s not forget the raped and tortured 12 year old in Less Than Zero) and people get squeamish.

      If you can’t tell, I’m a little annoyed today. It has been a disturbing weekend in America (rascism, women’s rights, etc. etc…the usual). I feel like we take one step forward and ten steps back (in regards to most things, books included).


      1. Will be keen to hear how you find the ‘questionable’ bits of Mateship. Needless to say, far easier read than American Psycho and Imperial bedrooms (which oddly, I found more confronting than Psycho but I guess I was in a different frame of mind reading it).


  1. I have had Pollock’s books on my wishlist for too long. Clearly it’s time to do something about that. I also tend to like darker fiction. I recently suggested Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places to someone looking for “a light read.” I didn’t think it was *that* dark, but my friend felt otherwise. My idea of “light reading” differs from the norm–I think that’s why I enjoy your blog!


    1. My sense of humor and preference for dark fiction is definitely a bit left of center, but I love it – I’m glad you do too!

      I would, of course, advise moving Pollock’s books up on your list, they are amazing (esp. The Devil All the Time).


  2. It seemed right to notify you that I’ll be picking up The Devil All the Time tomorrow. So that way you can pester me until I do read it since most library books of mine tend to go unread. Pointless, I know. 🙂


    1. Would it be too weird to be squealing with delight over this news? Because I sort of am.

      If it’s too weird pretend I never told you… 😉


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