Almost Forgotten: The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock, 2016, 9780385541299.
I either totally forgot or missed seeing a pub notice for this novel. I have really enjoyed Pollock's previous work and Devil All The Time was quite good. This too is an interesting novel and for all the murder, violence, drinking, raping, stabbing, kicking, stomping, abduction, torture, robberies, con jobs, lack of love, physical abuse, racism, and sexism the book was not a downer for me. I'm not sure why. Maybe because the characters are always moving forward and themselves are somewhat optimistic.
This certainly fits into the Rural Violence genre of books I've been reading over the past few years. I suppose that is not a well recognized category of literature but if people can call some novels Rural Noir I can say Rural Violence. After reading my first Daniel Woodrell novel I promised myself to avoid the Southern Missouri Ozarks at all costs. I would only travel there with at least three guns and one of those had to be a long gun. Danger and menace seem to be all around when I read Woodrell's fiction.
Reading Pollock's Knockemstiff and Devil All The Time had about the same effect. But, for whatever reason they come off as optimistic. Every character in Pollock's novel is some sort of fink. Sure, the murderers are much worse than the adulterers but only a couple characters never take advantage of other people. In Woodrell's stories prison and violence are an inevitability. Someone is going to be under threat for any and all reasonable or bullshit reasons. Most of them will backstab you given the chance.
There about 10 characters you could call lead characters in Heavenly. Even the minor characters come with a backstory and full descriptions. That full backstory never bothered me. Pollock may have had a character appearance last no more than a couple pages but I just plain enjoyed the side stories.
Here is the short version: It is 1917 and three brothers in Kentucky start robbing banks and making their escape to Canada. In Southern Ohio a poor farmer tries to keep his farm afloat while fancy pants Army officer trains new troops, hides his homosexuality, and dreams of glorious death. All of them meet up after plenty of other characters get mixed in.
I really did like this. But, the plot is not as important as the people and the way Pollock tells the stories. For my own records here are some comments to spark some memories of the novel when I reread this in a few years.
- The three brothers are 17, 20 and 23 and poorer than dirt poor. After their father dies they go to burgle the rich farmer who has been underpaying them for field work. They end up killing the man, robbing banks, collecting guns and practicing their gun skills. They kill anyone who gets close enough in hopes of earning the big reward money for them.
- The farmer was taken for all his family's life savings, $1,000, by a con man who sold the farmer cattle owned by someone else who was out of town for an extended time. The farmer was deeply shamed and embarrassed and his 15-year-old son has left home to become a raging alcoholic. At first he thinks the son has joined the US Army at the new WWI base near their farm. He has a lot of trouble admitting to his wife when he learns the boy is now a booze hound.
- The Army Lieutenant is a college graduate and one of the few experts in the card games of ancient Rome. His fiancee left him and he planned a glorious suicide until he ended up joining the Army. He now plans a glorious suicide in France's No Man's Land while huddled with the handsome Private in his training platoon. The, he hooks up with a local gay guy and starts shtupping all the time.
- Orphan guy with enormous schlong is deeply ashamed of his penis. His hyper religious mother used to manipulate an shame him all the time. He is about 20-years-old and only had one other friend before. His current job is to check the levels of all the city's outhouses. A recent flood overflowed many of the outhouses and caused several cholera deaths. Orphan walks the city wearing high rubber boots and carrying with a long pole covered in feces to gauge latrine depths. Orphan smells like his outhouse pole.