Tales from the dark side
A journey through the macabre world of acclaimed Ohio writer Ray Pollock
2012 Touchstone Nominated Story. The following story from the Toledo City Paper was nominated for the Press Club of Toledo's Touchstone award for Excellence in Journalism.
Donald Ray Pollock writes fiction. Thank God.
The characters contained in his two highly praised books, the short story collection Knockemstiff and the recent novel The Devil All the Time, are not the kind of folks you want to meet after dark. Contained within the pages of these gothic-flavored tales are fathers who slurp whiskey from dirty ashtrays and pick drunken fistfights in the ragtag bathroom of a drive-in theater. And then there is the story of a man named Lard McComis, whose bid for attention is sated by allowing his fellow townies to throw darts at his ample belly.
It’s all scary, eerily realistic stuff—and it’s compulsively readable. In 2008, following the publication of Knockemstiff, the 57 year-old former mill worker suddenly found himself mentioned in the same circles as Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor. Critics sat up at Pollock’s unpretentious, spookily authentic short stories, chronicling the underbelly of small-town America. In 2011, his first novel The Devil All the Time was named by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the top 10 books of the year.
But Pollock’s own tale is more
bizarre than anything he has ever written; the Rocky Balboa-like story of a middle-of-nowhere mill worker, rising up to give the literary establishment an unforgettable jolt. Five years ago,
Pollock never imagined his work would be championed by the likes of Katherine Dunn (Geek Love) nor find himself with Chuck Palahniuk, who has become one of his more ardent supporters, on a book tour.
But before Pollock saved the American short story from dormancy with his book Knockemstiff, few people believed he could save himself.
Knockemstiff, Ohio. Before there was a book, there was the town, located a few miles outside of Chillicothe, Ohio. Like Toad Suck, Arkansas; Hell, Michigan, Boring, Oregon; or Loveland, Ohio, Knockemstiff is one of those places you might make a detour to visit on a drug-fueled college road trip, simply because you want a picture of yourself with the ‘Welcome to …’ post. There’s no longer a Knockemstiff sign — someone swiped it after the book came out, though a photo taken of the actual sign before the theft now adorns the book cover (“It’s (the cover photo) the same sign that was there, but they digitally added a few more bullet holes,” explains Pollock)
By the way, did you hear the tale about how Knockemstiff got its name? The legend goes that sometime around the turn of the 20th century, a scorned wife confronted her two-timing husband’s mistress in front of the church, following the Sunday service. As the catfight got underway, the preacher heard the wife scream she was going to “knock ‘er stiff.” This story is paraphrased
within the book and Pollock says it’s
generally accepted as fact. At least among the locals.
“Truth is, no one really knows how it got the name,” says Pollock. “But that story goes at least as far back as the ‘30s. My dad has a copy of a newspaper article from back then that reported that story as fact. So maybe it is true.”
Behind the wheel of a 2003 black Chrysler Sebring, Pollock is driving along Route 50 from Chillicothe back towards Knockemstiff, about a 13-mile commute. As he drives along the foliage-heavy country road,
dotted with signs warning commuters to be mindful of deer and farm equipment, he gives a guided tour of this strange little hamlet.
“That old house there?” says Pollock, pointing to an old but sturdy green house with a dilapidated double-wide trailer behind it. “It was my great-grandparent’s house. My sister lives there now. My brother lives behind it.” Driving at a steady 45 mph, a moment later he points to a white house, this one in slightly better shape. “One of my buddies used to live there. He died of an Oxycontin overdose a few years ago.”
Driving onward, the area is mostly flat, with nice, solidly constructed houses dotting the landscape every so often. Pollock quickly points to a square building with plywood-boarded windows. “That’s where my parents’ store was. And we lived in that house there.” He points to a weathered, but still nice-enough house with a crisp, manicured yard.
But soon the darker side of Knockemstiff begins to come into focus. The trees get larger and more gnarled. You start to see the occasional rusted-out pickup truck shell rotting away in the large drainage ditches bordering the road. Pollock points to two freestanding metal posts, the last known location of the purloined Knockemstiff sign.
Suddenly, it’s there — the dark, desolate Knockemstiff from the book. To the left side of the road sits a run-down mobile home, seemingly plucked from the set of Deliverance. The siding is completely gone, and toys and trash litter the front yard, which contains only the occasional patch of grass. Tattered clothing hangs limply from the clothesline. The only sign of humanity is a toddler, clad in a saggy disposable diaper, running towards the open door of the trailer.
“Yeah, there’s still the occasional rough spot around here, even though it’s mostly been cleaned up from when I was a kid,” says Pollock. At the end of the road lies another boggy-looking trailer, and a boarded-up building that formerly housed Hap’s Bar, a popular setting in several of his stories.
Turning the car around, Pollock casts a quick glance at what used to be Hap’s. “I’ll tell you what, though, these people don’t live nearly as rough as they used to. When I was a kid, I knew people who literally had chickens roosting in their kitchens.”
Pollock recalls his Knockemstiff childhood with equal parts nostalgia and
derision, a contradiction that extends to the book.
“When I was growing up, Knockemstiff had a reputation for being a rough place. If you didn’t know anyone around here, it was probably best if you stayed away. At least that’s what people in town believed.”
But as a young man, he knew just about everyone there.
“(During the ‘60s), there were about 400-500 people living there. No mayor. No post office. There were three stores, a bar, and a church. That’s about it. I was related to about half the people that lived there.”
Growing up in the holler, there was almost nothing for a young boy to do. Pollock’s old man kept him and his brother busy with yard and farm work and he later worked
in his parents’ store when they opened Don’s Market in the late ‘60s (his mom
was the primary operator, and the store closed in 1994).
As Pollock edged towards puberty, restlessness spread throughout his rapidly growing limbs. What lay beyond the borders of the holler? At 13, he was unable to explain the unease he felt, but he knew he wanted to leave. Now.
“I just wanted to get out, man,” says Pollock, rolling down the car window, and lighting a Doral cigarette. “I wasn’t getting along with my dad. He wanted you to ...” He trails off for a moment, looking for the most tactful term. “He always wanted to know where you were, you know? You always had work to do. He was just really, really strict.”
“Nah. But I ran away from home a lot.”
The first time he took off, he got as far as Illinois (“You could hitchhike anywhere you wanted back in those days”) until the fuzz got him, and detained him while his folks drove 700 miles to pick him up. Even after getting it good from his dad over that little stunt, Pollock still attempted to escape, heading for Florida four separate times. Yet, he always boomeranged back to the holler. Years later, that sense of
confinement would strongly influence his literary work.
“That feeling of being trapped. Always wanting to get out. These characters — they’re stuck there in the holler. They’ll never get out and they know that.”
Like many teens, Pollock turned to alcohol and drugs to help numb his sorrow, maintaining a full-blown love affair with weed, and taking the occasional dance with mescaline and LSD. A few times he even tried huffing Bactine first-aid spray, an experience which would later directly inspire his first short story.
“We’d try anything to get high. It was just the thing to do,” says Pollock.
Eventually, Pollock came quite close to leaving Knockemstiff . He quit high school in the 11th grade so he could go work at a meat packing plant, earning his diploma through a correspondence school (“I actually got my high school diploma before my former classmates.”). At 18, he took off yet again for Florida with one of his buddies and for a while, it was great — all the girls a young man could ask for, good weed, great sunshine, and he had even found a job working at a tree nursery. But he was also dead broke most of the time and was eventually forced to make a dreaded call back home.
“Dad said ‘I think I can get you on at the mill if you come back,’ and the mill was the primo job in Ross County at that time. So I came back.”
Feeling defeated, the prodigal son returned. But to his surprise and frustration, his dad couldn’t get him on at the mill just then. Now he found himself once again stuck in Knockemstiff, living with his grandmother, and working for slave wages at a shoe factory.
After a few months, he was hired at Mead Paper Mill (now called Glatfelter), one of the biggest plants in the area, which at that time was employing between 5,000 - 6,000 people. So he went to work, still getting high or rip-roaring drunk in his free time; sometimes even going to work high. But despite his drug-addled state, Pollock still had hopes and ambitions beyond the simple blue-collar life sentence to which most of his co-workers had resigned themselves.
“I figured, ‘Hell, I’ll stay here for a few years, get some cash in my pocket, and then split.’”
Twenty-seven years later, he was still working at the mill.
At age 45, it appeared that Pollock had come a long way from his wayward youth. After several trips to various treatment centers, he had finally become sober at 33. Now on his third marriage, he had also obtained an English degree from Ohio State University. But after working in the paper mill for nearly three decades, Pollock was depressed at the prospect of spending the rest of his working life at the factory.
“I just hit this wall all of sudden,” says Pollock. “I mean, I was sober and had a really good job, but I was also disappointed about how I had lived my life.”
And then all of a sudden, from out-of-nowhere, came his salvation.
“I just decided I was going to learn to be a writer. So I told my wife Patsy, ‘I’m gonna give this five years, and see what happens.’ I figured if I give this my best shot and nothing works out, that’s okay, because I still tried. I can go to the rest home and I’d be okay with myself, because at least I knew I tried.”
Determined to learn the secret to great writing, Pollock went straight to the masters of the craft. After putting in his 10-hour shift at the mill, he would come home, trudge up the stairs to his refuge in the attic, sit at a manual typewriter, and retype his favorite classic stories. Word by word. Page by page. Chapter by chapter. Before long, he had faithfully retyped about 10 Hemingway short stories, and soon moved on to pieces from Richard Yates, Denis Johnson, and Flannery O’Connor. Even while writing his own fiction, he adhered to his strict regimen of retyping one story per week, then carrying the manuscript around in his back pocket. During his lunch hour or smoke break, he would read and reread his homemade version of a literary classic, underlining passages and phrases that stuck with him.
“I was trying to figure out how these writers did what they did,” says Pollock. “I would really examine the nuts ‘n’ bolts stuff. How they used punctuation, how they divided
the story into paragraphs. How they did dialogue, which is especially tricky. I did that for a year — retyping the
stories. And it was great. I was doing
something besides just watching TV at night. I was working on something I wanted to do and I enjoyed. I felt like I was getting somewhere.”
His early efforts at writing his own stories were, by his own admission, “not working.” The characters he was writing about were people he didn’t know — doctors, professors, and the like. He was getting better at handling dialogue and was starting to grasp the formula of how to put together a short story, but the results were still unsatisfying. Something just wasn’t clicking.
Then he thought about his chaotic teen years, and his dalliance with Bactine huffing. He sat down at the typewriter, and soon found himself completing the first draft of a story about two burnouts who end up shaking off the aftereffects of breathing in the noxious antiseptic spray at a doughnut shop at 3 a.m. He didn’t know it then, but he had laid the cornerstone of the Knockemstiff book. The story, titled simply Bactine, worked.
More stories followed. Using the real-life locations he had grown up around, Pollock invented characters that were wholly fictitious, but were injected with a tiny strain of raw truth. His cast was made up of people who had grown up in the holler, knew they would never get out, and would have no clue what to do if by some circumstance, they did happen to leave.
“With each story, I took that sense of darkness or that feeling of being trapped that I felt when I was young, and I cranked it up.”
Pollock then took a daring, no- turning-back-now step: He quit the mill. After 32 years of working there, he enrolled in grad school, forcing himself to go all the way in his quest to be a writer. A few family members thought he’d gone crazy. But he was undaunted, and assured them that he could become a teacher once he earned his master’s degree.
“I was told that my best chance of getting a teaching position after grad school was if I had a book out.” So for the next 16 months, he focused his attention on finishing a book. He also began sending out stories unsolicited to various literary magazines, and entering short story contests. Soon, he was finding his stories being published in small literary journals throughout America, including The Journal, Boulevard, and Berkeley Fiction Review. One story — Lard — caught the attention of literary agent Nathaniel Jacks after it was published in Third Coast Chiron Review.
The sequence of events that led to Pollock getting his book deal was cut and dry: Jacks contacted him, asking if he was interested in signing with an agent. He sent Pollock’s manuscript to New York-based publishing house Doubleday, and he quickly received an offer. Following a brief bidding war, Pollock signed with Doubleday, encouraged by the fact that the publisher’s editor, Gerry Howard, had been responsible for many of Pollock’s favorite books, including Irving Welsh’s Trainspotting, and several of Chuck Palahniuk’s books, including Fight Club. Amount of time between meeting Jacks and inking the book deal: One month.
Pollock knows with deadly seriousness how lucky he is. “I had it really easier than (most writers) have it. I know a lot of writers who are a lot better than me and they just can’t get that break.”
But more breaks were still to come. As a selling aide, Doubleday contacted Palahniuk and asked him if he would read Pollock’s manuscript and, if he liked it, write a blurb for the cover. Palahniuk happily obliged, writing “More engaging than any new fiction in years.” Likewise, Publisher’s Weekly lavished praise upon the manuscript, admiring Pollock’s grim tales for their “startling … aura of truth.” Even one of Pollock’s favorite authors, Katherine Dunn, lent her praise: “ … Pollock is no shadow of anybody else. This is a powerful talent at work.”
Shortly after the book was published in March 2008, Pollock found himself on a book tour with Palahniuk, who was promoting his latest novel Snuff. They instantly hit it off, since both men came from factory backgrounds and specialized in telling stories about screwed-up characters. Pollock found the rabid
Chuck Palahniuk fan base to be a cool, but bewildering experience.
“I’m used to having maybe 10-15 people show up at a reading, but here I am with Chuck and 400 people show up.” Additionally, Pollock was interviewed for National Public Radio’s Bookworm program, hosted by Michael Silverblatt. He was also interviewed by Entertainment Weekly and The Los Angeles Times and was asked to contribute political op-eds to The New York Times and Huffington Post.
Critical acclaim for Knockemstiff was nearly universal and three years later, the accolades for The Devil All the Time were even stronger. Literary pundits often compared him to Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor, comparisons that Pollock found flattering but slightly embarrassing. “I’m not nearly that good,” he simply says. “I think my stuff’s totally different.”
Pollock’s two books have sold steadily, attracting a devoted audience of fans. While Pollock is not getting rich from his literary career, he still feels quite blessed, considering he left the mill behind and was awarded fellowships from both Ohio State University and the writer’s organization PEN American Center, which have allowed him to write fulltime.
And so, in the end, it appears that while Donald Ray Pollock never left Ross County, everything turned out okay. The former Bactine-huffing mill worker managed to quit both substance abuse and the job he thought he would never leave. But most of all, at nearly 60 years young, he has found himself praised as one of America’s finest
“It feels really good to be able to do something every day that you love. It’s just a great feeling.”
Keep knockin’ ‘em stiff, Don.