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3.9 31
by Donald Ray Pollock

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"More engaging than any new fiction in years." —Chuck Palahniuk

An unforgettable work of fiction that peers into the soul of a tough Midwestern American town to reveal the sad, stunted but resilient lives of its residents. Knockemstiff is a genuine entry into the literature of place.

Spanning a period from the mid-sixties to the late nineties,


"More engaging than any new fiction in years." —Chuck Palahniuk

An unforgettable work of fiction that peers into the soul of a tough Midwestern American town to reveal the sad, stunted but resilient lives of its residents. Knockemstiff is a genuine entry into the literature of place.

Spanning a period from the mid-sixties to the late nineties, the linked stories that comprise Knockemstiff feature a cast of recurring characters who are irresistibly, undeniably real. A father pumps his son full of steroids so he can vicariously relive his days as a perpetual runner-up body builder. A psychotic rural recluse comes upon two siblings committing incest and feels compelled to take action. Donald Ray Pollock presents his characters and the sordid goings-on with a stern intelligence, a bracing absence of value judgments, and a refreshingly dark sense of bottom-dog humor.

Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Miles
Pollock, who grew up in the actual Knockemstiff, Ohio (which may or may not resemble the town he depicts), and who worked in a paper mill for more than 30 years before enrolling in Ohio State University's M.F.A. program, conveys all this in steely, serrated prose that—along with his crippled, disfigured or otherwise damaged characters, as well as his jolting sparks of humor—calls to mind Harry Crews…False notes are rare, Pollock's voice is fresh and full-throated, and while these stories travel negligible distances, even from one another, the best of them leave an indelible smear.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

A native of Knockemstiff, Ohio, Pollock delivers poignant and raunchy accounts of his hometown's sad and stagnant residents in his debut story collection that may remind readers of its thematic grand-daddy, Winesburg, Ohio. The works span 50 years of violence, failure, lust and depravity, featuring characters like Jake, an abandoned hermit who dodges the draft during WWII, lives in a bus and discovers two young siblings committing incest on the bank of a creek, and Bobby, a recovering alcoholic who must face the imminent death of his abusive father. The language and imagery of the novel are shockingly direct in detailing the pitiful lives of drug abusers, perverts and a forgotten population that just isn't "much welcome nowhere in the world." Many of the characters appear in more than one story, providing a gritty depth to the whole, but the character that stands out the most is the town, as dismal and hopeless as the locals. Pollock is intimate with the grimy aspects of a small town (especially one named after a fistfight) full of poor, uneducated people without futures or knowledge of any other way to live. The most startling thing about these stories is they have an aura of truth. (Mar.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
A debut collection of terrifying, darkly funny stories concerning the drug-addled, beaten-down inhabitants of a southern Ohio holler called Knockemstiff. Pollock's characters are in dire straits: They tend to be addicts, brutes, connivers and small-time criminals with big-time depravities. A boy gets caught having sex with his sister's doll in "Hair's Fate." "Pills" depicts tweakers on a binge. In "Giganthomachy," a woman draws tattoos on her son's arm, hands him a pair of scissors and asks him to come into her bedroom pretending to be mass-murderer Richard Speck: "Just spit on the floor, maybe," she says. "Hurt me, but don't really hurt me." Another woman, in "Rainy Sunday," helps her heavyset older aunt lure horny drunks into sex. "Blessed" shows a thief, disabled by falling off a roof mid-robbery, descending into a horrifically graphic addiction to painkillers. Several tales feature epicene young men hectored by violent fathers; others show people trying and failing again and again to escape, or even, finally, to want to escape. Throughout, Pollock shows deep empathy for these whipped and battered souls, most looking not so much for a way out as for a way to let it all slide. As one says, "It's the same for most of us; forgetting our lives might be the best we'll ever do." The stories are strikingly similar in tone, setting, characters, even length, but that's scarcely a problem in a collection as bleakly, unsettlingly funny-and touching-as this one. Pollock grabs by the throat and doesn't let go. Agent: Richard Pine/InkWell Management
From the Publisher
Knockemstiff is a powerful, remarkable, exceptional book."—Los Angeles Times“More engaging than any new fiction in years.” —Chuck Palahniuk“Pollock’s voice is fresh and full-throated…His steely, serrated prose…calls to mind Harry Crews.” —The New York Times Book Review“[Donald Ray Pollock] could be the next important voice in American fiction.”—Wall Street Journal“These are absorbing stories that linger and haunt. They crept up on me, leaving me breathless and shaken.” —Oregonian “Startling, bleak, uncompromising, and funny…This is as raw as American fiction gets. It is an unforgettable experience.” —San Francisco Chronicle“Here is a collection of stories that are perhaps unique in our time…Wry and raw and poignant, these extraordinary stories are gritty with the yeast of folks caught in the act of being only too human.” —Larry Heinemann, author of Paco’s Story“Profanely comic…Pollock’s tales are spiked with a lurid panache that handily earns its own literary genre: Southern Ohio Gothic.” Elle “Pollock doesn’t so much push the envelope as incinerate it, but his potent narrative gifts (and pitch-black humor) make it impossible to look away from the flames.” —The Washington Post“This electrifying collection of linked stories uses the voices of the rural hamlet of Knockemstiff to create a coherent world of echoing themes and recurring characters that has the drive and impact of a fine novel. Pollock brings grace and precision to colloquial language, and the ferocious integrity of his vision is flat-out stunning. Pollock grapples with savagery and reveals primal tenderness. After every story in Knockemstiff I had to take a walk and let my head cool down. I keep reaching for some other writer to compare him with—maybe a Raymond Carver with hope and vitality, or a godless Flannery O’Connor—but Pollock is no shadow of anybody else. This is a powerful talent at work.” —Katherine Dunn, author of Geek Love

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.79(w) x 8.48(h) x 0.81(d)

Read an Excerpt


By Donald Ray Pollock
Copyright © 2009

Donald Ray Pollock
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780767928304


My father showed me how to hurt a man one august night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old. It was the only thing he was ever any good at. This was years ago, back when the outdoor movie experience was still a big deal in southern Ohio. Godzilla was playing, along with some sorry-ass flying saucer movie that showed how pie pans could take over the world.

It was hotter than a fat lady's box that evening, and by the time the cartoon began playing on the big plywood screen, the old man was miserable. He kept bitching about the heat, sopping the sweat off his head with a brown paper bag. Ross County hadn't had any rain in two months. Every morning my mother turned the kitchen radio to KB98 and listened to Miss Sally Flowers pray for a thunderstorm. Then she'd go outside and stare at the empty white sky that hung over the holler like a sheet. Sometimes I still think about her standing in that brittle brown grass, stretching her neck in hopes of seeing just one lousy dark cloud.

"Hey, Vernon, watch this," she said that night. Ever since we'd parked, she'd been trying to show the old man that she could stick a hot dog down her throat without messing up her shiny lipstick. You've got to understand, my mother hadn't been out of Knockemstiff all summer. Just seeing a couple of red lights had made her all goosey. But every time she gagged onthat wiener, the ropy muscles in the back of my old man's neck twisted a little tighter, made it seem as if his head was going to pop off any second. My older sister, Jeanette, had used her head and played sick all day, then talked them into letting her stay at a neighbor's house. So there I was, stuck in the backseat by myself, chewing the skin off my fingers, and hoping Mom wouldn't piss him off too much before Godzilla stomped the guts out of Tokyo.

But really, it was already too late. Mom had forgotten to pack the old man's special cup, and so everything was shot in the ass as far as he was concerned. He couldn't even muster a chuckle for Popeye, let alone get excited about his wife doing tricks with a wrinkled-up Oscar Mayer. Besides, my old man hated movies. "Screw a bunch of make-believe," he'd say when_ever someone mentioned seeing the latest John Wayne or Robert Mitchum. "What the hell's wrong with real life?" He'd only agreed to the drive-in in the first place because of all the hell Mom had raised about his new car, a 1965 Impala he'd brought home the night before.

It was the third set of wheels in a year. We lived on soup beans and fried bread, but drove around Knockemstiff like rich people. Just that morning, I'd heard my mother get on the phone and rag to her sister, the one who lived in town. "The sonofabitch is crazy, Margie," she said. "We couldn't even pay the electric bill last month." I was sitting in front of the dead TV, watching watery blood trickle down her pale calves. She'd tried to shave them with the old man's straight razor, but her legs were like sticks of butter. A black fly kept buzzing around her bony ankles, dodging her mad slaps. "I mean it, Margie," she said into the black mouthpiece, "I'd be outta this hellhole in a minute if it wasn't for these kids."

As soon as Godzilla started, the old man pulled the ashtray out of the dash and poured a drink in it from his bottle. "Good Lord, Vernon," my mom said. She was holding the hot dog in midair, getting ready to have another go at it.

"Hey, I told you, I ain't drinkin' from no bottle. You start that shit, you end up a goddamn wino." He took a slug from the ashtray, then gagged and spit a soggy cigarette butt out the window. He'd been at it since noon, showing off the new ride to his good-time buddies. There was already a dent in one of the side panels.

After a couple more sips from the ashtray, the old man jerked the door open and swung his skinny legs out. Puke sprayed from his mouth, soaking the cuffs of his blue work pants with Old Grand-Dad. The station wagon next to us started up and moved to another spot down the row. He hung his head between his legs for a minute or two, then rose up and wiped his chin with the back of his hand. "Bobby," he said to me, "one more of your mama's greasy taters and they'll be plantin' your old daddy." My old man didn't eat enough to keep a rat alive, but anytime he threw up his whiskey, he blamed it on Mom's cooking.

Mom gave up, wrapped the hot dog in a napkin, and handed it back to me. "Remember, Vernon," she warned, "you gotta drive us home."

"Shoot," he said, lighting a cigarette, "this car drives its own self." Then he tipped up the ashtray and finished off the rest of his drink. For a few minutes, he stared at the screen and sank slowly into the padded upholstery like a setting sun. My mom reached over and turned the speaker that was hanging in the window down a notch. Our only hope was that the old man would pass out before the entire night was ruined. But as soon as Raymond Burr landed at the Tokyo airport, he shot straight up in his seat, then turned and glared back at me with his bloodshot eyes. "Goddamn it, boy," he said, "how many times I gotta tell you about bitin' them fingernails? You sound like a mouse chewin' through a fuckin' sack of corn."

"Leave him be, Vernon," my mother said. "That ain't what he does anyway."

"Jesus, what's the difference?" he said, scratching the whiskers on his neck. "Hard to tell where he's had those dick skinners."

I pulled my fingers out of my mouth and sat on my hands. It was the only way I could keep away from them whenever the old man was around. That whole summer, he'd been threatening to coat me clear to the elbows with chicken shit to break me of the habit. He splashed more whiskey in his ashtray, and gulped it down with a shudder. Just as I began edging slowly across the seat to sit behind my mother, the dome light popped on. "C'mon, Bobby," he said, "we gotta take a leak."

"But the show just started, Vernon," Mom protested. "He's been waiting all summer to see this."

"Hey, you know how he is," the old man said, loud enough for the people in the next row to hear. "He sees that Godzilla thing, I don't want him pissin' all over my new seats." Sliding out of the car, he leaned against the metal speaker post and stuffed his T-shirt into his baggy pants.

I got out reluctantly and followed my old man as he weaved across the gravel lot. Some teenage girls in culottes strutted by us, their legs illuminated by the movie screen's glimmering light. When he stopped to stare at them, I crashed into the back of his legs and fell down at his feet. "Jesus Christ, boy," he said, jerking me up by the arm like a rag doll, "you gotta get your head out of your ass. You act more like your damn mother every day."

The cinder-block building in the middle of the drive-in lot was swarming with people. The loud rattling projector was up front, the concession stand in the middle, and the johns in the back. The smell of piss and popcorn hung in the hot dead air like insecticide. In the restroom, a row of men and boys leaned over a long green metal trough with their dicks hanging out. They all stared straight ahead at a wall painted the color of mud. Others were lined up behind them on the wet sticky floor, rocking on the toes of their shoes, impatiently waiting their turn. A fat man in bib overalls and a ragged straw hat tottered out of a wooden stall munching on a Zero candy bar and the old man shoved me inside, slamming the door behind me.

I flushed the commode and stood there holding my breath, pretending to take a leak. Bits and pieces of movie dialogue drifted in from outside and I was trying to imagine the parts I was missing when the old man started banging on the flimsy door. "Damn, boy, what's taking you so long?" he yelled. "You beatin' your meat in there?" He pounded again, and I heard someone laugh. Then he said, "I tell you what, these fuckin' kids will drive you crazy."

I zipped up and stepped out of the stall. The old man was handing a cigarette to a porky guy with sawdust combed through his greasy black hair. A purple stain shaped like a wedge of pie covered the belly of his dirty shirt. "I shit you not, Cappy," my father was telling the man, "this boy's scared of his own goddamn shadow. A fuckin' bug's got more balls."

"Yeah, I know what you mean," Cappy said. He bit the filter off the cigarette and spat it on the concrete floor. "My sister's got one like that. Poor little guy, he can't even bait a hook."

"Bobby shoulda been a girl," the old man said. "Goddamn it, when I was that age, I was choppin' wood for the stove."

Cappy lit the cigarette with a long wooden match he pulled from his shirt pocket and said with a shrug, "Well, things was different back then, Vern." Then he stuck the match in his ear and twirled it around inside his head.

"I know, I know," the old man went on, "but it still makes you wonder what the fuck's gonna happen to this goddamn country someday."

Suddenly a man wearing black-framed glasses stepped from his place in line at the urinal and tapped my old man on the shoulder. He was the biggest sonofabitch I'd ever seen; his fat head nearly touched the ceiling. His arms were the size of fence posts. A boy my size stood behind him, wearing a pair of brightly colored swimming trunks and a T-shirt that had a faded picture of Davy Crockett on the front of it. He had a fresh waxy crew cut and orange pop stains on his chin. Every time he took a breath, a Bazooka bubble bloomed from his mouth like a round pink flower. He looked happy, and I hated him instantly.

"Watch your language," the man said. His loud voice boomed across the room and everyone turned to look at us.

The old man whirled around and rammed his nose into the big man's chest. He bounced back and looked up at the giant towering over him. "Goddamn," he said.

The big man's sweaty face began to turn red. "Didn't you understand me?" he said to my father. "I asked you to watch your cussing. I don't want my son hearing that kind of talk." Then he said slowly, like he was dealing with a retard, "I . . . won't . . . ask . . . you . . . again."

"You didn't ask me the first fuckin' time," my old man shot back. He was tough as bark but rail thin back in those days, and he never knew when to keep his mouth shut. He looked around at the crowd starting to gather, then turned to Cappy and winked.

"Oh, you think it's funny?" the man said. His hands tightened into fists the size of softballs and he made a move toward my father. Someone in the back said, "Kick his ass."

My father took two steps back, dropped his cigarette, and held up his palms. "Now hold on there, buddy. Jesus, I don't mean nothing." Then he lowered his eyes, stood staring at the big man's shiny black shoes for a few seconds. I could see him gnawing on the inside of his mouth. His hands kept opening and closing like the pincers on a crawdad. "Hey," he finally said, "we don't need no trouble here tonight."

The big man glanced at the people watching him. They were all waiting for his next move. His glasses started to slide down his broad nose and he pushed them back up. Taking a deep breath, he swallowed hard, then jabbed a fat finger in my father's bony chest. "Look, I mean what I say," he said, spit flying out of his mouth. "This here is a family place. I don't care if you are a damn drunk. You understand?" I sneaked a look over at the man's son and he stuck his tongue out at me.

"Yeah, I understand all right," I heard my father say quietly.

A smug look came over the big bastard's face. His chest puffed out like a tom turkey's, straining the brown buttons on his clean white shirt. Looking around at the pack of men who were hoping to see a fight, he sighed deeply and shrugged his wide shoulders. "I guess that's it, boys," he said to no one in particular. Then, his hand now resting gently on top of his son's head, he started to turn.

I watched nervously as the disappointed crowd shook their heads and began moving away. I remember wishing I could slide out the door with them. I figured the old man would blame me for the way that things had turned out. But just as Godzilla's screechy, door-hinge roar echoed through the restroom, he leaped forward and drove his fist against the temple of the big man's head. People never believe me, but I once saw him knock a horse out with that same hand. A sickening crack reverberated through the concrete room. The man staggered sideways and all of the air suddenly whooshed out of his body like a fart. His hands waved frantically in the air as if he were grabbing for a lifeline, and then he dropped to the floor with a thud.

The room went quiet for a second, but when the man's son began screaming, my father exploded. He circled around the man, kicking the ribs with his work boots, stomping the left hand until the gold wedding ring cut through to the bone of his finger. Dropping to his knees, he grabbed the man's glasses and snapped them in two, beat him in the face until a tooth popped through one meaty cheek. Then Cappy and three other men grabbed my father from behind and pulled him away. His fists glistened with blood. A thin string of white froth hung from his chin. I heard someone yell to call the cops. Still holding on to my father, Cappy said, "Jesus, Vern, that man's hurt bad."


Excerpted from Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock Copyright © 2009 by Donald Ray Pollock. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Donald Ray Pollock, recipient of the 2009 PEN/Bingham Fellowship, made his literary debut in 2008 with the critically acclaimed story collection, Knockemstiff.  He worked as a laborer at the Mead Paper Mill in Chillicothe, Ohio, from 1973 to 2005.  He holds an MFA from Ohio State University. His work has appeared in, among other publications, EpochGranta, and the New York Times.

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Knockemstiff 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 31 reviews.
SavageBS More than 1 year ago
"Knockemstiff" is depressing as hell! But not in the sense that the book isn't any good, it is. The book is about the town of Knockemstiff, Ohio and there just isn't anything happy about the place. This book has a little bit of everything: drugs, rape, murder, incest, sex, corruption, addiction, love, racism, steroids, domestic abuse, theft, fishsticks and a whole lot of other things I would rather not mention in my review! It's a very gritty but quick read, only 203 pages. Their are 18 individual stories with some reaccuring characters throughout it. The stories, if not true, could easily be true and most likely have happened sometime / somewhere out there! Many of the things these unruly characters in the book do, would make most of us cringe (or gag, faint or run away), but hey, this is Knockemstiff, you gotta do, what you gotta do to get by and it "ain't" pretty! You've been warned..... The 18 stories in the book are: Real Life (5/5 stars) Dynamite Hole (5/5 stars) Knockemstiff (3/5 stars) Hair's Fate (5/5 stars) Pills (4/5 stars) Giganthomacy (3/5 stars) Schott's Bridge (4/5 stars) Lard (3/5 stars) Fish Sticks (4/5 stars) Bactine (5/5 stars) Discipline (5/5 stars) Assailants (5/5 stars) Rainy Sunday (3/5 stars) Holler (3/5 stars) I Start Over (4/5 stars) Blessed (5/5 stars) Honolulu (4/5 stars) The Fights (4/5 stars) Good luck and enjoy.......
SonOfTheMorning More than 1 year ago
Knockemstiff is an excellent collection of short stories, and its author, Donald Ray Pollock, is a rising star in modern fiction. Each story is unique, but they all have a common theme; the stories are always very dark and often quite funny. The writing is brave and uncompromising, and the author has a voice that is sharp and entertaining. This is a strong debut, and I can't wait to see what Pollock will do next.
mattyaneo More than 1 year ago
First of all, if you are easily offended, find violence offensive, or any other thing along these lines... this is probably not the book for you. With that said, Knockemstiff is a great read. The characters range from misguided to psychopathic, and really it's easy to see how they got that way. A boy beats another boy to a bloody pulp for his fathers acceptance, a wife sells her blood to blood banks to support the family, a boyfriend sticks by his girlfriend, even when she draws her ideal boyfriend, which is not him. Pollock unifies his cast of characters around a single location, some are recurring, some are only shown once. what truly shows in the novel is the suffering and sadness of a small town, the failings of people who want to change, yet don't know how. Beneath every character's crazy deeds is a completely human person, who hurts, longs, and does things they regret. In the end Knockemstiff is really just a portrait of humanities failings, written as masterfully as Da Vinci painted.
kren250 More than 1 year ago
Here's one town you don't want to live in! Knockemstiff, Ohio is a small town populated by high school drop outs, drunks, and chain smoking folks living in beat up trailors (think "hillbillies"). The book is written as a series of entertwined short stories, with the same characters often popping up through out the book. Pollock does an outstanding job of making the characters seem so real. I guarantee it that you'll spot a bit of an annoying in-law, or that mouthy, gossiping neighbor in this book. Be forewarned, the book does contain some violence and, well, some just plain disgusting moments. It's also not a "feel good" type of book; avoid if you don't like dark and disturbing. But if you do occasionally like to take a walk on the dirty and gritty side of things, you will be unable to put this one down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love this book. I only read the first five pages then i found myself unwlable to put it down. But i personaly love books like these. Although, because of the language, i would not recomend it to every one especially those under fourteen. So if you like dark first person books then this is the book for you.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This collection of short stories was crazy good. Loved author's latest book, Devil All the Time, so wanted to read this as well. Does not disappoint. Tough, gritty and fantastic. Loved it!
Anonymous 7 months ago
This story has some odd and weird characters!! The book is a collection of stories about the people who live in Knockemstiff. Some are drunks, some are drug addicts, some are goofy, some are sex perverts, and more. Odd and more odd. The stories include poverty, fights, stealing, pills, bologna, old cars, selling blood, and more. It is a bunch of scary stories. The book deserves an A++
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not as good as Devil all the time
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The stories are not your usual fare. Extremely well written to the point where you feel like you've lived the lives described. I liked the way the individual stories loosely tied with each other. But beware...you might feel like you need a shower to get clean after reading of the low down, dirty, ignorant dregs of society who care about nothing but themselves and can't seem to do anything right except get their next drug fix or drink. You feel that there are no depths to which a person can sink, with some being seemingly helpless or clueless against the force. But, the stories make you think and are engaging to the point of not wanting to stop reading. This book is not for everyone, but if you can stand a walk through the sewer, you will find an incredible fictional description of a side of life you'll never want to live.
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nightmarepixie_luv More than 1 year ago
Okay first of all, I grew up in Knockemstiff, my dad even knows the author, and these stories are fiction. The town isn't as bad as the book leads you to think and a lot of the people in Knockemstiff are decent people (though every town has its flaws). How ever the writing is good and the stories are interesting. I would recommend it, but purely on the writing and not the truth of the stories and what it says about the town.
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I would just like it to be known that this book is strictly fiction. I grew up in Huntington Twp. right next to Knockemstiff, while the area really is populated with high school drop outs and small town country folk, the darker side of this book holds no actual merit. This was an amazing book and would recommend it to friends.
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