“Donald Ray Pollack: A Grit-Lit Trailblazer” by William Blick

Bizarre, absurdist, and disturbing, Pollack offers striking revelations…. He attempts to conjure the literary ghosts of a forgotten America.

Here is a question: How does a laborer who has worked at the Mead Paper Mill in Chillicothe, Ohio for over 30 years become the recipient of the 2009 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Fellowship and attain an MFA in Creative Writing from Ohio State University? Easy: take a person with extensive life experience and couple it with a creative gift to tell of the quiet desperation in many forgotten souls’ hearts. Donald Ray Pollack, whose work has been critically praised by NPR, Publisher’s Weekly, and The Wall Street Journal comes from humble roots. He has performed many jobs, including that of a truck driver and a factory worker.

Pollack, like Daniel Woodrell, is something of a wonder. He began his writing journey at the rather late age of 45. His work has been compared to Denis Johnson, Flannery O’ Connor and Cormac McCarthy. This is certainly prestigious company to keep, and he has done so by writing about the people, settings, and mythologies of where he was born and grew up. However, he admittedly never knew any of the characters in his stories personally, and the tales are not memoir. Pollack seems to have infused dark imaginings into the ominous anywhere/nowhere, U.S.A of Knockemstiff.

In a revealing interview with NPR we can see some insight into Pollack’s writing process:

SIMON (Interviewer): Now Knockemstiff is an actual place, but these aren’t the people you grew up with. You take some pains to say that.

Mr. POLLACK: Most of the people around where I live know where Knockemstiff is, so I wanted to make sure that they didn’t think it was a non-fiction memoir or anything like that.

SIMON: But on the contrary, you say the people you grew up with were very nice.

Mr. POLLACK: For the most part, they were, yes.

Pollack’s first published book, Knockemstiff (2008), was somewhat of a “sleeper”.  According to Jeffrey Trachtenberg of the Wall Street Journal, who reviewed the book way back in February of 2008, said that:

Mr. Pollock’s first book, a collection of connected stories called Knockemstiff, will come out next month. The author’s rough background figures into many of his stories about troubled men and women whose lives are marked by drinking, drugs and violence. His personal story will also be key to the marketing of the book by its publisher, Bertelsmann’s Doubleday imprint.

We have seen work like this before. There are Netflix series, books, and films about rural drug manufacturing and all manners of depravity in a rural landscape such as I have discussed in previous essays including such works as Winter’s Bone (2010), and the incredibly popular Netflix series, Breaking Bad (2008). These type of gritty stories have been being produced at rapid rate over the past 10-15 years. However, Pollack, like Woodrell, is a major trailblazer in this genre.

We haven’t heard much about Pollack post-pandemic. However, his follow-up to his debut Knockemstiff, The Devil All the Time (2012), saw the premiere of a Netflix-produced film based on the novel in 2020. It received relatively decent reviews. However, it failed to be particularly ground breaking. His most current novel is The Heavenly Table from 2016.

I always admired success stories of writers who were not bred to be writers, but rather toiled and worked just to make ends-meet, and in their humble existence creates expressions of desperate human suffering and a gestalt of the overall “human experience.” Such writers include Charles Bukowski, John Fante and Hubert Selby, Jr. – heck, you could include Bruce Springsteen’s working-class roots in there as well. Bukowski, Fante, Selby, Pollack, and Woodrell all have hard-working, back-breaking backgrounds which has toughened their prose to the most rough-hewn encasements of human experience. This is in stark contrast to the “tune, turn-on, drop-out” generation preceded by the restless Beat Generation of the 1950s.  

We see too many rehashed, recycled robotic prose generated by MFA programs about dog-walking and dinner parties. When an author like Pollack breaks new ground it is extremely refreshing. Although, Pollack did obtain an MFA, his roots are what really fuels his dark, compelling and visceral prose, as with the case of Daniel Woodrell. While Pollack’s output has been far from prolific, what he has set into motion in his book of short stories, and subsequent novels, leaves one to long for more of these types of raw efforts.

When I read Knockemstiff, I could not initially help but think first of Nick, the bartender in the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, at the point when George Bailey has never been born. The bartender played by television producer, Sheldon Leonard, “Nick” exclaims to George and Clarence, “We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk quick, and we don’t need any characters around to give the joint atmosphere.” This is a glimpse into old school “juke joints,” but make no mistake about it, Knockemstiff is no Bedford-Falls. Knockemstiff tells stories of a rough and disturbing nature with many unnerving scenarios and themes. The question is: why do we need to read about these themes in such a tumultuous time? 

We see too many rehashed, recycled robotic prose generated by MFA programs about dog-walking and dinner parties. When an author like Pollack breaks new ground it is extremely refreshing.

First of all, Pollack’s first stories came out over a decade and a half ago, which does not necessarily make them the most timely of stories. However, if one were interested in the development and progress of American Literature in the early to mid-21st century, Pollack’s work cannot simply be dismissed. Most of Pollack’s stories hearken back to the early- to- mid 20th century, often comparable to Erskine Caldwell and, Ohio’s greatest literary champion, Sherwood Anderson, with his wonderful book of grotesqueries, the immortal Winesberg, Ohio (1919).

While Donald Ray Pollack is often bizarre, absurdist, and disturbing, he offers striking revelations about parts of America that we do not often hear about. It is the similar startling to the revelations that Hubert Selby, Jr. explored which detailed a seedy American subculture in the 1950s in a novel originally banned, Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964). Pollack attempts to conjure the literary ghosts of a forgotten America. Though not always uplifting and what is most relevant today, there is still a niche for this type of fiction that is not only based in genre fiction, but also in literary traditions, such as Woodrell, McCarthy, and Denis Johnson. While fiction swiped from today’s headlines, is what may be considered the most socially relevant and important work today, there is still a place for the those who tell the tales of some corner “gin joint” in some nowhere town, in a part of nowhere-U.S.A. wherein a guy meets another guy in a bar, and things escalate into startling consequences. One can only await what Pollack can produce next…I hope to see more from him.

Works Cited

“Knockemstiff’ Writer Pulls No Punches.” Weekend Edition Saturday, 12 Apr. 2008. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A177806389/OVIC?u=cuny_queensboro&sid=primo&xid=735840d1. Accessed 13 Apr. 2023.

Trachtenberg, Jeffrey A. “WEEKEND JOURNAL; Books — Publishing: A New American Voice; an Author’s Rough Background Powers His Stories — and Marketing.” Wall Street Journal, 9 Feb. 2008. ProQuest.

William Blick is an Assistant Professor/Librarian at Queensborough Community College. He has published articles on film studies in Senses of Cinema, Cineaction, and Cinemaretro. His fiction has appeared in Out of the Gutter, Pulp Metal Magazine, and Pulp Modern Flash.

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