Spoilers! (But honestly, I can’t spoil this book. No spoilers can do its mayhem justice.)
Donald Ray Pollock can freakin’ write a book, folks. His 2016 novel, The Heavenly Table is something I wanted to blog about after the opening six pages. If I was ever going to do a writing seminar, which only my dog would attend, I would do an entire lecture about those first six pages. This is my first time reading Pollock, and he had me in those first six pages.
Set in 1917, in my backyard, no less, of southern Ohio, Pollock’s novel follows the “hardscrabble” lives of three lowly white brothers trying to make it after their father dies, with only the story of a Confederate outlaw in a dime paperback, The Life and Times of Bloody Bill Bucket, as their inspiration. Along the way, as they murder and pillage through Georgia and eventually land in Ohio, we meet Ellsworth Fiddler and his wife, Eula; military men preparing for the Front in World War One, including a lieutenant coming to terms with his homosexuality, and the fact that these hillbilly Ohio farmers don’t appreciate great literary classics; a sadistic barkeep, who enjoys torturing, maiming, and eating his patrons; prostitutes working out of a barn that seemingly everyone in the town knows about and visits; and a black man named Sugar who is down-on-his-luck-but-also-lucky.
As I’ve previously said, usually about Stephen King books, one of my favorite reading pleasures is reading a novel with an ensemble cast of characters who are fully developed, authentic, and in this case, gritty, and who all converge on the same location leading to the climax. That sort storytelling and story arc when done right is so immensely satisfying and interesting. It is like being able to see Pollock juggling all of these threads as you’re reading, and wondering how he’s going to bring them all down into one coherent thread.
Pollock’s book is about how how early 20th century America was a time of great progress, but also with a great many Americans still stubbornly (or unwittingly, or they had no other choice) holding on with one foot in the 1800s — a story one could write about today, which is likely Pollock’s intention — but also intimately about darn difficult it is to be a human, cognizant of our limitations, our impending death, and trying to make something of a hardscrabble kind of life. If all you knew in life was working for a sadistic sharecropper eating sick hog and stale biscuits with your pa’s grey hair in it, and not bathing for a week, maybe you’d turn to the romanticized life of an outlaw, too. Or as Chimney muses early-on in the book, “When did they get to start living?”
In those first six pages, Pollock introduces us to the pa, Pearl Jewett, and his three boys, Cane, Cob, and Chimney. Cane is the only literate one of the family, taught by his now 14-years-deceased mother. In those first six pages, interestingly starting at the dinner table, we get four fully-realized characters, living and breathing around that dinner table. It is a master class in character work and dialogue and writing. Pollock’s writing bubbles, gurgles and boils with grit, intensity, and that word I can’t help but go back to: authenticity. Cane, the literate one, talks and the way I would expect him to. Cob, who is slower and illiterate, talks and acts the way I would expect him to. And Chimney, is just a pent up ball of hormones and rage, talks and acts the way I would expect him to.
My favorite two characters, though, were the Fiddlers. They are just two people trying to do right in the world in their little part of it, and by their only son, Eddie, but it is a hardscrabble life indeed. A man swindles them out of $10,000, which is a lot of money, much less back then ($231,000 in today’s money)! And their son dropped out of school in the sixth grade and leaves them for the drink. The couple is also illiterate, and I find it fascinating to consider that a.) there had to be a considerable number of Americans who didn’t even realize America was joining a global war and why; and b.) like the Fiddlers, had no concept of where Germany was on a map or how far away it is. They initially thought Eddie left them to join up the war effort, as a military base was established in a neighboring county, so they inquired about Germany with a local teacher. That whole sequence was both gut-busting hilarious and sad, but also sweet. Funny, sad, and sweet would be a good three-world review of Pollock’s novel.
Sugar meanwhile has a run-in with the Jewett Brothers, but because he is black, he can’t get the posse coming after the Brothers for the $5,000 reward money, or the local police, to believe him. Instead, they try to kill him, but he keeps surviving, or getting out of dicey situations. In the end, the police kill him, because of course.
What the Jewett Brothers, Pearl, and Sugar all have in common, although Sugar doesn’t necessarily call it this, is the idea of the “heavenly table.” That they are enduring this awful life because eventually they will be rewarded — they must be rewarded, because how else can you make sense of such a hard, awful life? — with a seat at the “heavenly table” in Heaven with God. Sugar’s version of this usually came down to the sort of bargaining you’re familiar: Okay, now I’m done hurting women and drinking, if only you get me out of this sticky situation, God.
You know who didn’t pine for a seat at the heavenly table or make such bargains with God? The Fiddlers. They were just doing their best, shucking their corn, drinking their coffee, and hoping their son would return. As it happens, the Jewett Brothers stop by their Ohio home for a rest from running from the law. That becomes the set-up for later when Chimney is caught in Meade, Ohio (at the same time the psychotic barkeep is caught torturing a lieutenant), and Cane is killed by a stable man (more on that in a moment). To protect his brother, Cane asks Jasper, the local sanitation man, who has his own dreams of violent grandeur (and also has an oversized penis he is scared of and sees as a curse due to his overly religious mother; yes) and cleaning up a dirty city, but who has befriended Cob, to take Cob to the Fiddlers’ house, with about $15,000 as well (split between the Fiddlers and himself). I’m not entirely sure why Cane didn’t just go with them, but maybe he figured it was best that way. The Fiddlers, in need of a son, money and a blessing, accept this, despite knowing Cob to be an outlaw.
Cane, who longed for a life with a real house, books and to keep his promise to his mother on her deathbed to protect his brothers, died in the best way for his character arc: Shot by a half-asleep old stable man, who thought he’d missed, and left to bleed out on the ground, everyone unaware and alone for the first time in his life. That sort of death rather than some Quentin Tarantino-like shoot-out, was the perfect metaphor for what Pollock had been thematically saying from the beginning: life sucks, and then you die. Even Chimney didn’t get his happy ending (heh) with his prostitute he thought he was in love with because he was apprehended by the soldiers. But hey, maybe along the way, you get to eat lobster, wear a fancy ill-fitting suit, see an aeroplane and an automobile, and use, if nervously, a commode.
I feel inadequate up against this novel, which could end up being my favorite fiction novel of the year, because of my inability to do it justice. Pollock’s novel is like if that nasty, gunky, foul-smelling water in the P-trap under the sink was presented to you after you’d crawled five days through the desert with a sandpaper tongue in that the book is brimming with violence, sex, language, and awful characters (within the story), but boy, does Pollock have a way of making it taste good going down. Grime has never “tasted” so good as when Pollock is serving it up. I’ll sit at his table any day. And like the best dark books in this vein, Pollock’s is also, as I alluded to earlier, quite funny. Because, after all, tragedy is inexorably connected with comedy. The former deepens the latter; the latter alleviates the former, and so on.
If any of what I’ve described sounds like your kind of novel, I would admonish you for reading a review with spoilers, but again, even if I laid out each plot point, I can’t do this book justice in a review. Read it. Devour it. I will be thinking about Pollock’s characters in this novel for a long time to come.