—In 1917, just as another hellish August was starting to come to an end along the border that divides Georgia and Alabama, Pearl Jewett awakened his sons before dawn one morning with a guttural bark that sounded more animal than man. The three young men arose silently from their particular corners of the one-room shack and pulled on their filthy clothes, still damp with the sweat of yesterday’s labors. A mangy rat covered with scabs scuttled up the rock chimney, knocking bits of mortar into the cold grate. Moonlight funneled through gaps in the chinked log walls and lay in thin milky ribbons across the red dirt floor. With their heads nearly touching the low ceiling, they gathered around the center of the room for breakfast, and Pearl handed them each a bland wad of flour and water fried last night in a dollop of leftover fat. There would be no more to eat until evening, when they would all get a share of the sick hog they had butchered in the spring, along with a mash of boiled spuds and wild greens scooped onto dented tin plates with a hand that was never clean from a pot that was never washed. Except for the occasional rain, every day was the same.
Following on from my earlier read, 3 years ago, ‘The Devil All of the Time’, I was ready for my next journey with Donald Ray Pollock, this time mostly into the Kentucky-Ohio area around the time of the entry of the US into the First World War. These were desperate times for sharecroppers as the books opening paragraph, and my opening quote illustrates. The story is of desperate men, of the ever presence and devastation of alcohol and of a general feeling of lawlessness, Pollock weaves in for good measure a psychopathic killer and a story of both prostitution and homosexual activity around an army camp at Mead.
The main characters in the book, Cane, Cob and Chimney Jewett, on the death of their domineering father decide to steel horses from the man that was exploiting them, Major Tardweller, but things go badly wrong and the brothers start on a path of no return as outlaws. Pollock weaves in here ‘The Life and Times of Bloody Bill Bucket’, The only book they had ever poessed which Cane had read them over and over until they could recite whole sections of the book, as they get into difficult situations, they identify with Bloody Bill whilst at the same time only just understanding that it is a fiction and not a real story. The brothers have an aim as they flee, they will escape with their gains from robbing banks to Canada, but they have absolutely no idea of where Canada is.
Amongst the characters Pollock serves us up are Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler who are swindled out of their savings by a man that sells them cattle in a field that don’t belong to him, and as their son runs away, maybe to join the army and fight the Germans, it becomes clear that the have absolutely no idea where Germany could be. There is Sugar, a black man who lives to drink and stumbles from desperate situation to desperate situation as amongst other things he is tied up and thrown over a bridge into the Ohio river. Then there is the army lieutenant Bovard, with ideals of war similar to those of the ancient Greeks he has read about as he studied classics, discovering drugs and the fact he is gay and finally the psychopath, Pollard, who tortures and cuts up strangers before throwing their remains into the Ohio river.
In this desperate book, full of dry humour, Pollock brings together all of these stories into a crescendo. This book is crammed with the sort of details that hold the reader’s attention and is as good as his excellent ‘Devil All of the Time’. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who hasn’t yet discovered Donald Ray Pollock.
First published in English as ‘The Heavenly Table’ by Harvill Secker in 2016