Donald Ray Pollock, who’s from rural Appalachian Ohio, began to write fiction after nearly 35 years as a laborer and/or truck driver.  His writing has achieved national acclaim, and deservedly at that.  His story collection, Knockemstiff (named for the booze made in the hills of Appalachia), was remarkable, and his current novel, The Heavenly Table, is again exceptional.  He does, indeed, write about the world from which he comes, and his mind is razor sharp , as he walks a fine line near satire, but has obvious affection for his characters.

Three brothers are living in a one room shack with their father in Nowhere, Georgia; it’s a barely subsistence living; they are basically working farmland owned by a nearby neighbor of some means.  Early in the novel, when we are privy to a random morning where these four men awake and eat a breakfast of fatty muffins, one apiece, unbathed, in clothes they live and sleep in, Pollock sets a tone that can be funny, and can also be sad; but he’s determined that we will know each of these men as real individuals, not as stereotypes, though when he does veer into stereotype, he’s astute and sophisticated.  While working on this farmland, the father drops dead, leaving the three sons, who’ve long been dependent on the father to make all decisions about their paltry lives, without an anchor.  Pollock thus allows us to see how different the three sons are when they face life alone.  And that’s when some of the fun begins.

The eldest son is the rational one, the middle son the angry one (who fantasizes ferociously about women/sex), and the youngest son’s what they call “slow”, a word I remember from my own childhood.  The loyalty amongst these three becomes increasingly moving as they decide to get out of Dodge, if you will, and try to make it to Canada to start a new life (an American trope in novels with a most distinguished history: think Vietnam War, Richard Ford’s novel Canada, and the like).  Pollock’s writing is full of such references, and they make a lot of sense.  Deciding to steal horses from the barn of the neighbor for whom they have been working, of course they get caught (having no training at stealing) and, in a truly stupid gunfight, murder the man, steal the horses, and set off for Canada.  They rampage their way from backwoods trail to trail to the North, and their always accidental gunfights are brilliantly rendered by Pollock.  The eldest son always makes sure that they all have food (usually stolen), and they find all sorts of abandoned houses in which they can spend a couple of nights.  The middle son turns out to be a brilliant marksman, as well, and the interactions and interrelationships between and amongst the three brothers constitute the core plot/theme of the novel.  In spite of the chaos they are causing, there is a very tender feeling amongst them–Pollock at his finest–and though the reader knows that the brothers will have to get caught (crime doesn’t pay could be a banner headline on their foreheads), the journey to this denouement is truly fascinating, beautifully delineated by the author, and the reader has increasing amounts of empathy for these brothers.  They become folk heroes along the way, as so many rural people have been screwed by the banking system (sound familiar in today’s world?), that when they rob banks they are cheered on (much like Bonnie and Clyde were: all these are rich references in this novel).

When the three brothers manage to hole up for a period of time with an aging farmer and his wife, whose own ne’er-do-well son has run away, the farmer and wife love having them around, feeding them, et. al, and the brothers help them with their crops, all turning a blind eye to whom the brothers probably are.  There’s also a newly established army base in rural Ohio near all this action, as World War II is revving up, and the army base and the nearby prostitutes constitute other subplots within the novel:  Pollock introduces all sorts of minor plots, all allowing us a peek into rural Ohio life, and all furthering the general plot line of escape to freedom.  When the brothers stay in a hotel in the town with the army base, it’s fascinating to watch how they care for one another (one has a gunshot wound in his leg by then), as they begin to plot their escape on towards Canada.  Pollock’s so persuasive that we, the readers, also begin to root for the brothers’ escape (the newspapers of the day have them committing horrible crimes in places they’ve never heard of or been to, a great spoof on rapacious media).  I won’t introduce more subplots, one of which is racial and brilliantly rendered.   How Pollock maintains his balancing act without veering into plain satire is part of the brilliance of the novel, and how the brothers continue to care for one another increasingly touching, even moving.

The Heavenly Table refers to their dead mother’s belief that heaven is a place where no one is ever hungry, that infinite amounts of food await; it’s such a simple belief, of course, and it brilliantly summarizes (and spoofs) some simple religious beliefs of the rural regions of the novel, but we readers never really laugh out loud; Pollock will not allow us to patronize them, and these high wire acts of conscience on Pollock’s part raise this novel into real literature, of the Open West (the Midwest/Ohio were still wide open in those days), of a family aspiring to better itself, and of small town living with characters who are richly and honestly delineated by Pollock.  The Heavenly Table is probably a bit of a sleeper, though it’s been much praised by critics.  I hope it gets a very wide audience.

–Daniel Brown

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