“The Heavenly Table,” by Donald Ray PollockReview by Mandy Mikulencak
First, let me be clear that author Donald Ray Pollock isn’t for everyone. His Southern Gothic fiction is seedy, violent and often shocking. Yet he’s one of my favorite writers because he is a master storyteller. There’s nothing fancy in his spare, coarse prose. It’s gut-wrenchingly real, daring you to look away when you know you damn well can’t.
I bought “The Heavenly Table” in hardback the day it was released because I have a feeling I’ll be a Pollock fan for many years. His debut novel, “The Devil All the Time,” is the better of the two books, so read that one first. Then hightail it over to Maria’s and buy “The Heavenly Table.” If you love the first, you’ll at least be satisfied by the second.
The current book follows the young Jewett brothers – Cane, Cob and Chimney. When their father dies, they decide to emulate a dime-novel hero called Bloody Bill Bucket. In 1917, they begin a crime spree on horseback, not realizing how quickly robbing banks turns to murder and how their infamy is based mostly on tall tales spun by the newspapers. Several plot threads introduce a host of characters that the Jewetts run into along the way: An illiterate elderly farmer and his wife, dirt poor after being swindled out of their savings; a bum who subsists on the charity of widows; a sanitation inspector with a certain body part the size of a baguette whose job is to check the depth of waste in the town’s outhouses; a bartender with a penchant for torture; a secretly gay army officer who dreams of being killed on the battlefields of WWI but becomes the unsuspecting victim of the sadistic bartender. Well, you get the picture. The milieu isn’t pretty, but the writing is beyond beautiful.
I happen to like Pollock’s personal story as well. Born in 1954, Pollock has lived his entire adult life in Chillicothe, Ohio, where he worked at the Mead Paper Mill as a laborer and truck driver until age 50. He then started writing, earned his MFA and is now lauded as a literary master of Southern fiction, joining the ranks of Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy.
Take my advice and don’t look away. Pollock is one to watch.
Mandy Mikulencak is a local author and freelance editor. Her second novel, The Last Suppers, will be released in 2017.