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Todd Cecutti

ENGL 204

Dr. Kevin Griffith

March 28, 2016

Plausible Depravity

At times, the world can be a cruel place. The circumstances in which we sometimes find

ourselves can be hard to believe; they leave us questioning our own sanity, the sanity of others,

or why we bother to go on at all. But, every now and then I read a story, real or imagined, that

reminds me that things could be worse much worse. Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock is a

collection of eighteen of those stories. Pollocks town of Knockemstiff, Ohio, is one giant

existential nightmare full of degenerates and the children of degenerates who will inevitably

grow up to be just like their parents if drugs or other residents dont kill them first. I found

myself frequently wondering just how true the stories in Knockemstiff could be; one moment I

would think that there is no possible way a person like one of the characters exists, and the next I

would think that they inevitably must there are certainly corners of the world that could breed

such depravity. It is in this way that Pollock succeeds. His stories thrive on the reader

questioning where the stories told fall on the spectrum from surrealism to realism, leaving them

suspended in the town of Knockemstiff, Ohio, wondering how they got there.

Knockemstiff reads like a historical account of the town of Knockemstiff, Ohio, where

depraved residents do whatever they can to get by or get high enough to not worry about getting

by. Pollocks eighteen short stories seem to range from the 1950s or 1960s to the 1990s, but the

stories are not in chronological order. They display a range of themes, subjects, and experiences,

but at the same time show a town of shared experience and status as the backwash in the cheap
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whiskey at the bottom of the barrel. If I must pick one theme that comes through in the stories, it

would be that poor father figures predicate negative circumstances, choices, and events or that

drugs are bad, especially when they arent really even drugs (Bactine). Ultimately, every story

is as haunting as the last in ways that I did not know I could be haunted.

One of the most apparent characteristics of the townspeople of Knockemstiff is their

aloneness in the world. Even though they live in a small town, an archetype of familiarity and

closeness, the characters manage to exemplify loneliness. Dynamite Hole is the story of Jake,

who ran to the woods to avoid military service. He is alone and, in a way that is reminiscent of

Cormac McCarthys Child of God, lives his life as what many would call a monster. His

loneliness was only relieved by raping a young girl, about which Jake said, All the hard years

and loneliness flowed out of me and bubbled up inside that little girl like a wet spring coming out

of the side of the hill (19). Pollocks ability to get inside the head of such a character plays as

much of a part in the story as the character does, and Dynamite Hole is one of the tales in the

collection during which I found myself considering the plausible depravity of humanity. This

man does not exist, but how sure can I be about that? It is not as if I would run across him in my,

comparatively, sheltered life, but maybe Donald Ray Pollock has. Loneliness is exemplified

again in I Start Over, in which a character named Big Bernie cares so little for his life and

family that he fantasizes about burning them alive. Bernie doesnt even see the point of keeping

his failing body alive due to being alienated from his wife and disturbed son: Besides, Im

beginning to believe that anything I do to extend my life is just going to be outweighed by the

agony of living it (163).

Another major theme throughout Knockemstiff is the characters desire to escape reality

through inebriation. From teens doing bong rips in their parents garage while throwing darts at
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the fat kid in Lard to a weeklong speed bender that culminates with cooking a days-old road

kill chicken over a burning tire in Pills, I found myself questioning what these characters were

missing that caused them to seek pleasure in that way. Hope? Family? Brain cells? Regardless

of reason, an inevitability of self-destructive actions to escape reality permeates the tales.

Bactine contains one of the most salient, soul-twisting lines in any of the stories in

Knockemstiff; the main character, who is sick and tired of huffing Bactine out of a bag to get

high, is faced with the prospect of not being able to get real drugs and immediately knows that

he will go back to the Bactine. He thinks to himself, Because of who were, I already knew what

we would do (116). That line has stuck with me since reading it, always reminding me of

people in my life who I have seen descend into addiction. It also shows the reader that the

people of Knockemstiff have the ability to be self-aware and even to think in moralistic and

ethical ways.

In the second to last story of Pollocks mosaic of rural nefariousness, Honolulu, I was

struck by the fact that Howard was one of the few (if not the only) characters who, in his past,

did his best to be an ethical person, even if only for a moment, by taking the Hawaiian

prostitutes baby out of the room in which his friend was having intercourse with her. This is not

to say that there is any hope for the characters of Knockemstiff. Even this characters tale ended

in a depressing fashion. The final scene of that story left me with chills going up my spine the

image of a woman in the kitchen cooking a meal for her Alzheimers-suffering husband who is in

another room under a plastic sheet with a gun barrel cutting his gums listening to her speak to

his daughter on the phone right before the sunset turns the kitchen a bright blood-red (191).

What does that say about morality and ethics? What does it say about people from Knockemstiff

who try to do the right things? All I know is that Donald Ray Pollock has managed to thrust
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upon me the responsibility of carrying around that image forever a testament to his masterful


I dont want to think that Donald Ray Pollock experienced any of the things he described

in Knockemstiff. I dont want to think that anybody has experienced the things he described in

Knockemstiff. But in the end, the reader is left knowing that sometime, somewhere, at least some

of these things have come to fruition in the real world. Though they seem surreal, at the same

time they feel very real and very possible. In this way, I suggest that readers allow Donald Ray

Pollock to hold them above Knockemstiff, Ohio and look down upon the depraved resilience to

productivity and progress, if only to know for certain what they do not want to become.
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Works Cited

Pollock, Donald Ray. Knockemstiff. New York: Doubleday, 2008. Print.