Is it weird that this book made me homesick? Because it kind of did, a little. Not because of the faux-religious murderers, but the colloquialisms in the book got to me. I grew up a little more than an hour east of Ross County, Ohio, and we often went camping twenty minutes away from Lewisburg, WV, when I was younger. Do you know how long it's been since I've heard someone refer to jiggers? Pop and Little Debbie cakes? It made the Suppressed Appalachian in me smile.
That's about the only thing in this book that could make me smile; this is a dark, twisted story. Beginning in the years immediately following the second World War and continuing through the mid-sixties, this debut novel traces the course of several stories that eventually intersect in Appalachian Ohio and West Virginia. There’s Williard Russell, who leaves Coal Creek, WV, to marry a waitress he met in Meade, OH, on his way home from the war in the Pacific. When Charlotte falls ill, Williard builds a “prayer log,” offering the blood of wild animals in a sacrificial offering. There’s Roy and Theodore, traveling preachers who prove their faith by handling spiders and drinking strychnine, before eventually going on the run from the law. There’s Carl and Sandy Henderson, a husband and wife team of serial killers who pick up hitchhikers to seduce, murder, and photograph in erotic positions. There’s Sandy’s brother, Lee Bodecker, the corrupt sheriff of Ross County. Tying them all together is Williard’s son Arvin, who grows up an orphan in the West Virginia hollow that his father once left, trying to protect the also-orphaned neighbor girl that his grandmother has also taken in.
Pollock unravels these threads in brief chapters, bouncing back and forth between characters and slowly revealing the connections between them in an unbelievably tight narrative. He builds the tension and draws out his characterizations masterfully. The blackened hearts and souls of these hicks fall somewhere between Deliverance
and No Country for Old Men
in my imagination. There is brutal violence in this book, but Pollock never goes for gore for the sake of shock; I have a queasy stomach but was able to handle 90% of his descriptions without cringing too much. There is a sense of realism to his prose that hooked me right away and never let me go. It's because Donald Ray Pollock is from Ross County and worked in a paper mill for three decades before earning his MFA from Ohio State -- he knows what makes the people in this area tick. I could see in these characters shades of people that I knew in school: the guy who sat in the back of my school bus, who lived next to a cemetery, dipped snuff in middle school, and whose proudest accomplishment was that he'd never lost a fight in his life. I have no idea what happened to the guy after he dropped out of school, and though I'm sure he never became a corrupt sheriff or sadistic killer, he's all I could think about while reading Pollock's descriptions of Williard Russell.