Saturday, July 16, 2011

Writers "gifted and . . . rough around the edges"

Donald Ray Pollock
(Image from New York Times)

I'd been thinking about my friend LeRoy Tucker, the Ozark Folkliar who recently published a passel of stories, anecdotes, and histories -- all of them somewhere between fact and fiction -- in a book titled Climax 1, and I happened yesterday upon a writer who reminds me somehow of Tucker in being "gifted and . . . rough around the edges," a certain Mr. Donald Ray Pollock, who has written a couple of books, though rather darker than Tucker's book: Knockemstiff and The Devil All the Time.

I learned of Mr. Pollock in Charles McGrath's New York Times review, "Writer Remains Literary Voice of Knockemstiff" (July 11, 2011):
There used to be a road sign, pocked with bullet holes, marking the beginning of this little village in southern Ohio, but someone stole it a few years ago, and there hasn't been much urgency about putting up another. The residents already know where they are, and not many strangers pass through. One of the two main roads in town, Shady Glen, eventually runs out of pavement and turns to dirt.

The author Donald Ray Pollock grew up in this backwater, along with many of his cousins, and he used the village as both the setting and the title for his first book, "Knockemstiff," a collection of linked stories in which nearly all the characters are violent or abused, and most are serious drinkers (one swigs Old Grand-Dad from his car ashtray) and inventive drug users besides. The substances they ingest include marijuana, meth, mescaline, hashish, angel dust, OxyContin and Seconal (in suppository form).

"The Devil All the Time," Mr. Pollock's new book, a novel due out on Tuesday from Doubleday, is also partly set here, and a prologue explains, "Four hundred or so people lived in Knockemstiff in 1957, nearly all of them connected by blood through one godforsaken calamity or another, be it lust or necessity or just plain ignorance." These days the village is a lot tamer than it must have been back then, when people from elsewhere gave it a wide berth. The two bars, Hap’s and the Bull Pen, have closed, and the cinderblock general store that Mr. Pollock's parents used to run has been remodeled into a house for one of his two sisters. The ball field that a Vista volunteer built in the late 1960s is overgrown with weeds and briars. Many of the original houses have burned or been knocked down and replaced with double-wide mobile homes.
Like Tucker's stories, Mr. Pollock's appear to fit somewhere on a continuum between fact and fiction, but far darker in tone and subject matter than Tucker's, possibly a bit too dark for my melancholy diposition. Anyway, after something of a mispent youth of drugs, drink, and slackerdom, this eleventh-grade dropout decided to pursue an education in English literature, and then turned to writing:
He began by retyping the stories of writers he admired -- Hemingway, Cheever, Richard Yates. "I'd type one and sort of carry it around with me for a week, reading and rereading, and then I'd pitch that one and do another. I probably did that for 18 months. I'm not a real close reader and typing those stories out gave me a chance to see this is how you make a transition, this is how you do dialogue. You don't fill the page with blather. I knew that in the back of my head, but it still helped to see it."
An interesting and apparently worthwhile method, for when he sent off a story that he felt sure of, he made quite an impression:
He submitted the story to The Journal, a literary magazine published by the English department at Ohio State University, and it made such an impression on one of the editors, Michelle Herman, that in 2005 she persuaded him to quit his job and enroll in the M.F.A. program there.

"I was completely convinced of his talent," Ms. Herman said recently. "It's not often you see someone that gifted and that rough around the edges on the page. People today have all taken classes. What he needed was really basic, rough copy-editing."

Erin McGraw, who taught Mr. Pollock at Ohio State, said of his decision to enroll there, "It was an amazingly courageous thing for him to do," and recalled that when he turned in his first story: "I just about fell out of my chair. I couldn't get over the disconnect between the stories -- dark, violent, often lurid -- and the gentle, extremely gracious person who wrote them." She added: "He worked very hard. He didn't have any desire to be some kind of idiot savant."
I don't think that many of us would want to be that! Seriously, I also admire the guy for his courage and his hard work, and I wish that I had his talent -- or Mr. Tucker's. In fact, I wrote Tuck and told him about the review and suggested that he ought to send a copy of Climax 1 to McGrath or Pollock. He took a look at a bit of Pollock's prose and remarked:
Nice voice. I've thought about writing that dark, murky stuff but my feel is that it just ain't my nature.
I replied to Tuck, touching on Pollock:
He's writing what he knows. Your stuff is dark enough already, and it's what you know.
Tuck has his own darker shades, but they are lightened by humor. I hope that he eventually writes Climax 2.

If he does, I'll be reading and plugging it . . .

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At 7:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

By the way, when are you going to write about your dissolute lifestyle, filled with slackerdom and other nefarious actions of yourself and others whom you know.

Of course, you could make it historical fiction, much as Laura Ingalls Wilder did, with the help of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.

Just keep me out of it.


At 7:24 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, if I leave you out, I'll have nothing to say! Think of all those moonshiner tales from the Hodges clan that I can't divulge without mentioning your name. And those amount to merely the tip of an entire iceberg of stories in which you play a role . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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