Knockemstiff, Ohio, is a real place. According to a website called ePodunk, “tradition says the town was named for the kick of its moonshine and the fighting ability of its toughs.” Donald Ray Pollock grew up there, and before obtaining an MFA from Ohio State University he worked for thirty years in a paper mill. Located near the intersection of Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia, Pollock’s Knockemstiff is a brutal and terrifying place. It’s a safe bet his hometown won’t be making him a parade grand marshall anytime soon.
Knockemstiff (the book) is either eighteen short stories or eighteen chapters in a loosely constructed novel of brawlers and speed freaks and rape victims spanning the latter half of the twentieth century. The opening
story, “Real Life,” takes place in 1965: a young boy makes his dad proud by kicking ass in a drive-in men’s room. Characters reappear throughout the book. Jake Lowry is a harmless old recluse (“flightiest bastard I ever seen”) in the title story. But the preceding story, “Dynamite Hole,” reveals he is actually a sadistic, unpunished child killer. If nothing else, Porter torpedoes once and for all the notion of Good Old Days: Knockemstiff starts bad and gets worse. Across the sped-up passage of years, damaged men sleep in various vehicles, including Jake’s broken school bus (“Dynamite Hole”), a trailer (“Knockemstiff”), a Ford Fairlane (“Schott’s Bridge”), and a bird-shit-filled, rusted wreck known as “The Owl’s car” (“Holler”). They ingest black beauties cadged from shady diet doctors, shoot steroids bought from Tijuana, take “oxys” stolen from the bedside of a dying man, or huff bactine from a paper bag. For employment, there is a paper mill or a plastics factory, and a scattering of small businesses that disappear as the century advances.
Few actual killings take place—but no doubt about it, Knockemstiff is an existential nightmare, a sock in the gut. The horror factor is magnified by the fact that no one evil is ever punished for their actions, and no one good ever finds redemption. “Those kinds of things happen when you drink like I do,” says one narrator. “You shit your pants in the Wal-Mart, you end up living off some crackhead and her poor parents.” Characters weave in and out of the narrative; they pop up in multiple guises in different stories. Geraldine, a fifteen-year-old girl who lives in a place called the Henry J. Hamilton Center, is the favored target of lonely boys looking to “pull a train” in “Lard.” In “Fishstick,” years later, she’s striking sexy poses for her boyfriend. “And even though she was probably the best woman Del Murray had ever been with—gobs of bare-knuckle sex, the latest psychotropic drugs, a government check—he was still embarrassed to be seen with her in public. Anyone who’s ever dated a retard will understand what he’s up against.”
In “Hair’s Fate,” a boy tries to escape town by hitching a ride with a trucker, but ends up in a compromising position. It’s the story J. T. LeRoy would have written if he’d been a real person—but Shirley Jackson and Edgar Allan Poe are bigger influences. Had Porter set Knockemstiff in a fictional town, it wouldn’t be half as creepy. You’ll be made sick and kept awake at the suggestion that a place like this really exists, that the drugged degradation and brutal poverty have been going on since 1965, and that maybe they will continue, unceasingly, forever.