In Donald Ray Pollock’s quintessential short story collection Knockemstiff, characters constantly engage in acts of violence and the reader is often invited to view the inner workings of pedophiles and similarly-minded degenerates. While such morally objectionable material could be viewed as violence for violence’s sake, I believe Pollock includes this graphic content to more effectively expose the reader to his encompassing theme: the inevitable bleakness of human life. The collection as a whole conjures an uncanny “circle of life” image that intensifies the theme, revealing how the starkness of his characters' lives propagates and reflecting that the violence in the vignettes is never far away in reality.
The first story of the collection, “Real Life,” uses violence to initiate the reader’s macabre journey. After attending a drive-in movie, a Napoleon-complex father and his shy and unassuming son get in a fight with another father-son duo, ending with the quiet boy punching (and potentially breaking the nose of) the other child. Pollock describes the boy laying in his bed that night, licking the dried blood off of his knuckles, thirsting for more. This introduction beautifully exemplifies the theme, with the innocence (or at least an aversion to violence) of the boy being perverted by his overly aggressive father. Such a desecration encapsulates the thematically inevitable loss of innocence and subsequent acquisition of less desirable qualities that permeates the collection.
The circle of life continues after this initial loss of innocence with a cautionary tale coming from an adolescent. In “Hair’s Tale,” a fourteen-year-old is given a rough haircut by his father, leaving him balder and more angsty. The removal of his hair evokes a Samson and Delilah-esque image, with Samson’s strength being replaced by the boy’s resolve. After he runs away from home post-haircut, he’s picked up by “Cowboy Roy,” a trucker whose intentions may not be of the purest nature. He experiments with drugs and alcohol before being driven to Roy’s country ranch, and after being coerced to put on Roy’s dead mother’s wig to recreate his once-glorious hair, the boy realizes that Roy has a very specific purpose in mind for him. He closes his eyes and accepts his newly discovered fate. His final act of submission (which presumably is followed by additional psychological and physical violence) adds to Pollock’s overarching goal of illustrating how everyone’s life will eventually reach this dark place, if only for a moment.
The stories move out of their teens and into early adulthood with “Schott’s Bridge.” The narrator of the story, Todd, is a young adult who chooses to start a drug-dealing business with his “friend,” Frankie. After Frankie knocks Todd unconscious, sodomizes him, and leaves him with close to nothing, Todd ingests the remainder of their drugs and walks to Schott’s bridge, where he drops his cigarette into the rapids below and watches the black water swallow it. As he gazes into the river and the story ends ambiguously, the reader is left to wonder if Todd will be soon to follow his cigarette into the murky depths. Where other Knockemstiff characters fall from grace due to their violent natures, Todd is immersed in the bleakness of life due to his naïveté and the aggression of his ex-business partner. It’s this eternal path to desolation that Pollock loves to represent as completely unstoppable.
Journeying into full adulthood, Pollock delivers “Assailants,” a quasi-humorous story that demonstrates that even the suggestion of an austere life can transform someone’s personality. Enter Del: middle-aged, married to a woman who was once attacked by a man wearing a paper bag on his head. He enters a convenience store one night – his wife has asked him to go get cigarettes as she is afraid to venture outside post-assault – and mentions his wife’s incident. When the clerk scoffs and dismisses his wife as “crazy,” Del angrily tells her “That’s bullshit... that woman? She’s married to some guy I know.” He leaves the store and tears two eyeholes in a paper bag, then returns to the counter and terrorizes the attendant in the same way his wife was frightened. His (somewhat) non-violent choice to scare the clerk ends in violence anyways, with the clerk falling backwards and hitting her head on the sharp corner of the deli case. Del’s predicament inspires me to agree with Pollock’s “bleakness-entropy.” No matter what decision is made, the overall grimness of the universe will only increase.
The life cycle of violence nears its end in Pollock’s story “I Start Over,” with the main character being Big Bernie Givens, a “sloppy fat” man “stuck in southern Ohio like the smile on a dead clown’s ass.” He’s married and has a son who was once a promising recruit for the Marines, but is now essentially brain-dead and an enormous burden on his parents after a three-day bender on angel dust. As Bernie says, “Lately, I’ve been fucking up left and right” – he’s solicited sex from a young girl, he’s mistreated his wife and son, he’s even been reprimanded not to smoke, and he’s generally fed up with his life. After assaulting several boys who mocked his son in a Dairy Queen drive-through, Bernie’s had enough. With his family in the car, Bernie tears down the freeway at an unimaginable speed, and with the sight of a police car in his rearview mirror, he “[rams] the gearshift into fourth” and “starts over.” Bernie’s journey marks the only story in Knockemstiff where the main character escapes the bleakness of their life. Unfortunately, Pollock’s rule of constantly-increasing unpleasantness holds true, and Bernie’s wife and son are transformed into victims as he asserts new control over his life.
Pollock ends the reader's journey with the death of a main character, in “Discipline.” After Luther Colburn, an ex-bodybuilder (who is training his son to be Mr. South Ohio) is faced with being responsible for the death of his child, he begins the most rapid and lethal descent into the abyss of any character in Knockemstiff. Luther physically destroys his business, an old gym, and returns to the scene of his son’s death, where he strips down to nothing and poses for hours in the early winter morning, flexing and flaunting his muscles until he freezes to death in a curiously described moment, where he “shatter[s] into a thousand tiny pieces.” This narrator, after losing his “anchor” when his son dies, falls into such an impressive downward spiral that the reader can only wonder how much darker his life can get. According to Pollock, it can’t; only death can free him from the grasp of Knockemstiff, Ohio.
Knockemstiff is a curious collection. Where some characters find bitterness, others find salvation, and the small-town setting allows Pollock to reintroduce some characters many years after we first discover them, incorporating changes to their personality that make sense. In staying with his theme, these changes are almost always for the worse. It’s a series of vignettes that certainly is not for the faint of heart, and although Pollock’s use of violence is disturbing and relentless, it’s absolutely essential to his portrayal of the characters and the material at large. When trying to convey the absolute despair of the human condition, it becomes necessary for Pollock to present the most destructive force in his character’s lives: violence. After reading Knockemstiff, it’s easy to disagree with the cliché “it’s always darkest just before dawn.” In staying with the theme, one could instead state that things, no matter what, will always get darker.