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Book Nook: The Heavenly Table, by Donald Ray Pollock


Readers love to try to pigeonhole books and authors. So do reviewers. We seem to need to have some points of reference. Someone will claim that a writer is like Hemingway or Faulkner or heaven forbid, Cormac McCarthy. They want to have definable genres that people can recognize. This novel is crime fiction. That one is chick lit. Or maybe this is grit lit? Chick lit veering into grit lit?

While categories are helpful I think that we often go too far down that road. Some writers are unlike any others. Donald Ray Pollock is one of those. I have only one category for Don; he's my favorite living Ohio author. He still lives here. His new book is magical.

Here's the review I wrote for the Cox Ohio newspapers:

Our world provides instant gratifications. Some of us desire much and want it right away. Do you recall the days before we could even get on-line? Before dial up modems? That slower, gentler society. Not too long ago really.

Good things come to those who wait. Most of my favorite writers take their time. It can be years between books but if you really love an author's work it is usually worth it. Donald Ray Pollock has just published his third book, "The Heavenly Table." This book was worth the wait.

Pollock lives in Chillicothe - he came to the writing game late in life. His first book, "Knockemstiff," a collection of short stories, came out in 2008. That book revealed a writer with a distinctive voice. It is dark and violent and filled with raw power. Some of those tales were so explosive that I felt like I had been slugged in the gut. They can leave one gasping with shock and admiration.

His second book "The Devil All the Time" came out in 2011. It was his first novel. In an interview at the time he said the novel form was a challenge for him as he transitioned from writing short stories. He agonizes and sweats over each word. He told me his next one would be set during World War One.

And so it is. "The Heavenly Table" takes place in 1917 as the United States is finally entering the war. As the story opens Pearl Jewett and his three sons, Cane, Cob, and Chimney, are eking out an existence as sharecroppers along the border of Georgia and Alabama. Times had been tough before Pearl's wife died. After that they had little but hopes left and not very many of those.

The Jewett boys had one treasure though, a tattered dime store novel called "The Life and Times of Bloody Bill Bucket." Cane, the oldest son, was the only one who could read. He entertains his brothers by reading the book to them. When their father suddenly dies the brothers are seized by an inspiration, they agree to emulate the exploits of their fictional hero Bill Bucket and become outlaws.

The Jewett Brothers transform themselves into legendary fugitives as they make their way slowly north to Ohio. Early chapters alternate between the adventures of the Jewetts and the story of an Ohio farm family, the Fiddlers, who are dealing with their own painful circumstances.

Pollock continues to braid ever more eccentric characters into his blazing tapestry. There's an angry bartender who might be a serial killer. Pollock seems to have a thing for serial killers. There's a military officer who is living a secret life as a sexual decadent. The most fabulous character of all is a white bird. This creature defies death, destroys doubt, and brings a faint flutter of hope to this chaos strewn canvas.

Don told me in our most interview that he had wanted to write "a yarn." Yarns are funny. "The Heavenly Table" disgorges a smorgasbord of horrors yet this reviewer could not stop laughing. Agony can be hilarious. This book is Donald Ray Pollock's masterpiece.

The Book Nook on WYSO is made possible by six local library systems in southwest Ohio:  the Greene County Public LibraryWashington-Centerville Public Library, MidPointe Library SystemClark County Public Library, Dayton Metro Library, and Wright Memorial Public Library.

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