I’ve been on a southern-gothic kick; don’t ask me why (like in high school when I found myself listening to a lot of Nick Cave and all those Austin, Texas psycho-billy/punk-brute bands). Maybe it’s always been my own idea of inverted minstrelsy, fantasizing about white decay/white pathology, gothic kitsch. I’ve been plodding through William Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom (from a list of 1000 must-reads). True to Faulkner’s prowess as the master of the run-on sentence this novel (according to the Guinness book of World’s Records) purportedly has the longest sentence in literature at 1300 words. I haven’t hit this mother lode yet—and I don’t think I could have missed it—but the story and syntax so far is so dense, that I feel like I have to hit every sentence with a running start in order to reign in some semblance of meaning, the text threatening to over run every through-line like tangles of kudzu on power lines.

So I also picked up Knockemstiff, the debut book by Donald Ray Pollock, which was much more easily digestible—at least syntax-wise (like Chungking Express v. The Ashes of Time), a page-turner even. Knockemstiff is a loosely connected series of short stories all set in the town of Knockemstiff, southern Ohio—more valley and ridge Appalachia than piedmont and coastal plain, but very much southern gothic, with it’s forays into the vernacularly grotesque. In interviews Pollock has cited Flannery O’Connor among others as big influences (In an interview with Michael Silverblatt he talked about how he taught himself how to write by typing out published novels he admired). One of the back-cover author quotes has Katherine Dunne (Geek Love) calling Pollock a godless Flannery O’Connor. But I would claim the opposite, what I remember of Flannery O’Connor was the way her characters would fall to rack and ruin as if from some general entropy of the world, and the tone of her stories always so coolly detached, unwilling to let on to relishing some cruel irony or lapses of empathy verging on sentimentality. The short stories that comprise Knockemstiff are mostly told in first person, the swirling cast of characters no matter how debased somehow vindicated, dignified in the telling, whether it is the ineluctable grace of center stage or the poetic turns, the haunting gestures that seem to close each story like trailing codas to a requiem.

The stories follow a rough chronology, only indicated by pop culture cues: songs on the radio, broadcasts of successive wars, 70s and 80s sitcoms, the drugs of the day, even though the setting seems to change little from outhouses and shacks to trailer parks. The literary Knockemstiff is a holler with it’s own gravity, a sinkhole from which no one escapes, every yokel just another reference point to track the rate of collapse. Few of the characters leave the state no less the town, and the few glimpses of escape end badly. The stories though tightly constructed, verging on minimalist, are somehow more generous; it’s as addictive as true crime, ugly as anything Joyce Carol Oates could spin, but somehow left me less wretched and sickened from the reading. To butcher an Oscar Wilde quote and collude it with Thomas Hardy: All of us are in the holler, but some of us are still wondering at the stars—still wondering why they blighted us so.

Speaking of downward spirals, I followed Knockemstiff with Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road. A father and son at the end of civilization head south for the winter (nuclear winter?). Maybe no other account has as many occurrences of the word “ashes” maybe only the Last Days of Pompeii. Oh the Promethean project of humanity, when our Chimpanzee lineage becomes all too apparent. To eat or be eaten, quoth pacman, pacman alluding to the Donner party. Darwin’s nightmare, the tyranny of moral imperatives. I didn’t catch the Oprah interview (Along with a Pulitzer, this novel got the big O, and will be made into a movie with Vigo Mortinsen). There were no reading group discussion questions appended like I saw in Toni Morrison’s Paradise. What did she make of all this toil and trouble? Surely something hopeful and testimonial, that wholly American sublime. At the dark at the end of the world, what is this torch that we must carry, pass along? Is it just William Bradford all over again, coming in, out of the rain? Should we read this as a parable for the vanity of American do-good-ism? Compare this to Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, her fantasy of Western cultural extinction (Who will read Shakespeare when the new Race is instinctively peaceful, macrobiotic, polyamorous and cooperative). Did Oprah make The Road out to be something less bleak? Cormac McCarthy, a curmudgeon among pessimists, his penchant for extolling the dramatic gestures of the Big Bad? The white man’s burden done up as film noir? I’m going to read Blood Merridean and get back to you on this.

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