Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff presents a disturbing take on American small-town life. In the town of Knockemstiff, Ohio, murder, rape, incest and the full gamut of backwoods perversion are the norm; those few characters with some sense of basic decency are the exception. The culprit for the terrible degenerative state of the citizens seems to be the town itself. Knockemstiff plagues the characters in the short story cycle like an inescapable cancer. It grips them and corrupts them, and the majority of the townspeople are never able to break free from its spell.
It seems obvious that the solution to all that ails the residents of the town is simply to get away, but for them it is not so simple. The characters in the stories are held in the town for a variety of psychological reasons. Some are afraid of leaving the only home they have ever known; while others crave the sense of belonging they feel among similar people in the holler, feeling that they would be unwanted anywhere else. As Jonathan Miles of The New York Times writes, Sandy the crack head wears a tattoo of the words “Knockemstiff, Ohio” as “a dog-tag-like reminder of where she needs to return, or be returned” (1). Beyond these reasons, the stories give the sense that the town has a kind of magnetic draw from which it is nearly impossible to break free. Only one central character, Bobby Shaffer, manages to escape the holler. This is because Knockemstiff never truly penetrates his psyche in the same way it does with all the other key players in Pollock’s tales.
Fear is certainly the driving force keeping Jake trapped in the holler. In “Dynamite Hole,” he reveals early on that he has never been more than two miles away from Knockemstiff in his entire life (14). Whether or not that is an exaggeration, it is clear that he feels even a short term trip outside the town is not only unattainable, but even undesirable. He goes to great lengths to avoid potential opportunities to escape his fate in the holler. When he is inclined to dodge the draft, his father scolds him, assuming that he is a coward, afraid of fighting in the war. Jake laments how he is unable to articulate his true fear of the draft when he says, “Hell, how could I have told that old man, the way they were drafting and killing boys left and right, that I wasn’t afraid of the fighting nearly as much as I was scared of leaving the holler” (15). Jake is more terrified of losing what is familiar to him than he is even of death.
In later stories we see that the other residents of the town feel, for good reason, that Jake is not quite right. Jake, however, may not be innately psychologically disturbed. The town around him is enough to damage even previously mentally healthy people. As “Dynamite Hole” begins, we immediately see an example of the kinds of things to which Jake is exposed, and it seems as though they are natural in the holler: “I was coming down off the Mitchell Flats with three arrowheads in my pocket and a dead copperhead hung around my neck like an old woman’s scarf when I caught a boy named Truman Mackey fucking his own little sister in the Dynamite Hole” (13). The matter-of-fact tone of the writing suggests that this is nothing out of the ordinary, and as we see through numerous examples over the course of the story cycle, it is an average occurrence in Knockemstiff. Surrounded on a daily basis by this kind of base perversion, it is absolutely understandable how a human being could become as twisted as Jake.
“Schott’s Bridge” and “Bactine” provide more examples of the fear and hopelessness predominant in the characters of the town when they even fleetingly consider a move outside the holler. When Todd’s grandmother gives him his inheritance, she warns him of the importance of getting out of Knockemstiff. “Toddy, you never did belong here. You take this, and you go somewhere else before you get hurt,” she implores (70). The problem for Todd is that before he even realizes it, he has been sucked into the same paralyzing dread of change that plagues so many of the other characters in the stories: “Todd discovered that he was afraid of leaving the holler, even if it was bad. He kept stalling, hanging around the county” (71). Once he began to stall, he had already condemned himself to life and death in the town. There is no logical reason for his inability to get away, other than the classic human fear of change from the familiar. The fear is amplified after the town of Knockemstiff digs its claws into its victim.
In “Bactine,” the protagonist has a different kind of problem preventing him from escaping from the holler. At the beginning of the story, he explains that he has yet to get out of town because he is taking care of his crippled uncle. He has made no attempt to get away from his uncle or the town because “… [he] was broke and unwanted everywhere else” (110). The term “unwanted” is suitably vague as it is standing in for the true feelings of inadequacy that he is not quite capable of properly articulating. The suffocating town has robbed him of any self-confidence. Like other people in and around the holler, he feels that the town is as much a part of him as he is of it. The area is so vile that it has left an indelible mark on him, rendering him wholly undesirable in any other segment of society. He is left with no sense that he could ever possibly find a place for himself anywhere away from other people who are similarly scarred.
Besides the personal psychological issues of the characters, the town itself seems to have an inescapable magnetic pull, keeping residents trapped within its grasp. In “Pills,” Frankie and Bobby devise a plan to use drug money to escape to California. Their plan proves impossible to accomplish, however, as the otherworldly draw of the holler has completely overtaken Frankie: “It didn’t matter how many miles we traveled by day, we always ended up back in the holler at night” (59). Behind the wheel, Frankie cannot pull himself away from Knockemstiff. The holler has sunken into him to the point where something in his consciousness forces him to turn the car in a circle and get back to the only place he feels comfortable.
Bobby, on the other hand, is eventually able to escape the town because it lacks the same kind of unbreakable grip on him. He displays throughout the cycle that he is somehow unlike the other residents of the holler. In the lead story, “Real Life,” Bobby lies in bed at the end of the story and thinks, “I wanted more. I would always want more” (12). Upon first reading, it seems as though he is referring to a newly found bloodlust, coupled with an overwhelming desire to continue achieving the acceptance of his father. Another possible reading, however, is that Bobby wants more out of life than the violent perversion in which he would become trapped if he remained in Knockemstiff. Even at this early age, he is looking for an escape from the vicious cycle of life in the holler.
In “Pills” we see how Bobby is unlike the other residents in his overriding sense of compassion. Despite taking part in an illicit drugs-for-sex exchange in the back seat of Frankie’s car, he shows his true colors in his concern for the Teabottom girl’s child. When he asks about the child, she is quickly dismissive; telling him not to worry about it, but Bobby is unable to do so: “… I couldn’t stop thinking about her baby, and wondering who was taking care of it while Frankie and me tried to screw her brains out. I kept imagining all kinds of horrible, fucked-up things happening to it” (57). His logical concern gives us a glimpse into his true self. He is physically in the town of Knockemstiff, but psychologically it is not his home.
Bobby provides critical insights into his own self-awareness of his otherness from the rest of the town in the final story of the cycle, “The Fights.” When he makes the trip back to visit his family, he feels that he is an outsider in a foreign place rather than a man returning home. Bobby says, “I’d grown up here, but it had never felt like home” (202). Although he had been trapped in the midst of a broken town and its broken people, he had never let it consume him. This is what separates him from all the other characters in the stories who are trapped in an inescapable cycle of depravity. Bobby was never really one of them.
Miles, Jonathan. “Winosburg, Ohio.” The New York Times. 23 March, 2008. .
Pollock, Donald Ray. Knockemstiff. New York: Doubleday, 2008.