The three brothers in Donald Ray Pollock’s second novel dream of escape – and who can blame them? Somewhere along the Georgia-Alabama border in 1917, Cane, Cob and Chimney Jewett are enslaved to an existence so comically appalling that it would be kicked out of a Nick Cave song for exaggeration. Their father awakes them each morning “with a guttural bark that sounded more animal than man”, they dislodge “a mangy rat covered with scabs” to pull on “filthy clothes, still damp with the sweat of yesterday’s labours”, and then they go to work for backbreaking hours in a swamp.
All they have to eat is the ageing remains of a “sick hog . . . scooped on to dented tin plates with a hand that was never clean from a pot that was never washed”; all they have to read is a crumbling dime novel about a bank robber called The Life and Times of Bloody Bill Bucket. According to their insane father, Pearl, such extreme poverty guarantees a place in the afterlife at the “heavenly table”, where everyone feasts on “pork chops thick as a bull’s cock and beef steaks the size of wagon wheels”. But when Pearl dies in the middle of an explosive bout of diarrhoea, the brothers, inspired by the deeds of Bloody Bill, turn to crime instead.
Pollock worked as a labourer for 32 years at a paper mill near his home town of Knockemstiff, Ohio, before going to college and becoming a writer. Since then, his published work – the short-story collection Knockemstiff and the novel The Devil All the Time – has revolved around his own particular patch of the American Midwest, squeezing grim humour from lowlife tales of poverty, addiction, violence and despair. In the picaresque shambles of this latest novel, he follows the Jewetts as they head towards Knockemstiff on their ever more ludicrous campaign of robbery (evading posses, shooting down stray aeroplanes) but also tracking the lives of a host of subsidiary grotesques, some of whose plotlines will intersect at the end.
It is Pollock’s first period novel, and he is clearly enjoying the set-dressing. The Heavenly Table is an absurd murder ballad of a book whose characters and events seem to have been chosen for maximum freakishness. There’s a clap doctor who thwacks people’s manhood with a rubber hammer, a reclusive orphan obsessed with measuring the depth of filth in people’s shithouses, a taciturn barkeep who tortures hapless customers in the back room, and a barnful of whores called the Whore Barn. The prose is headlong and Rabelaisian, as though Tom Sharpe had decided to write a book set in the twilight of the Old West. More or less everywhere, caricature replaces character.
It’s not very deep, though. Although there is ghastly humour in Pollock’s previous work, there’s a great deal of strenuous tragedy as well: he can write with an acuteness that borders on the voyeuristic about the disappointments of little lives, wasted opportunities and cruelty committed through boredom or stupidity. Here, however, he mostly doesn’t. It may be the period setting that gives rise to this strange empathy gap. There’s plenty of pungent dialogue and frantic action, but the sense rarely fades that we are dealing less with the inner lives of human beings than with a rogue’s gallery of zany western archetypes.
This may be Pollock’s plan, as one of the more interesting things about the book is the murky points it makes about pulp fiction and the self-consuming nature of the American west. As the brothers pursue their Bill Bucket-inspired conquest of various small-town banks, the story that builds around them (“What the hell was ‘bestiality’?” wonders one character, reading a Wanted poster, “or ‘necrophilia’?”) soon dwarfs the hackneyed cowboyisms of their foundational text. Each of the three brothers is also chasing a separate literary vision of the world. Chimney, the youngest, is obsessed with the money, guns and women of pulp fiction; Cob, the slow-witted middle brother, fantasises about the faux-biblical story of the heavenly table; and Cane, the eldest, dreams of book-lined rooms, 19th-century novels and editions of Shakespeare. If The Heavenly Table seems hysterical, theatrical, pulpy and fraught with confused religious symbolism, that in its own right may have something to say about the society that Pollock describes.
Yet he never pushes quite hard enough on these interesting ideas. Instead, as the book rolls towards an ending of suspiciously neat sentimentality, the impression is of a writer slightly intoxicated by his own capacity to do amusing things with well-worn genre tropes. The Heavenly Table is daft, and gruesome, and offensive, and loads of fun to read. At times, though, it feels as if it could have been rather more.
The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock is published by Harvill Secker (365pp, £12.99)
This article appears in the 10 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, From the Somme to lraq