post by Cheryl Russell
Donald Ray Pollack’s short story collection Knockemstiff is a collection of linked short stories—tales that are dark and, most of the time, violent. These are people who understand they have no escape from the poverty of southern Ohio—they are people without hope and these stories reflect that hopelessness. This is a difficult book to read, but yet, it’s a book very difficult to put down once you’ve started reading.
It took me awhile to hit on a reason why this dark book stays with me and why I found myself re-reading it for this post, but the reason is Pollack’s opening sentences. His sentences at the beginnings of his stories are hooks that caught me, and the rest of his writing then reeled me in, no matter how much I wanted to put the book down.
“My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive in when I was seven years old” (1) is the first sentence in the first story. Several questions come to mind: what kind of a father shows his seven year old how to hurt another man? And at a drive-in, where the only violence should be kids fighting in the backseat over the last few M&Ms. As the story progress, we find out what kind of a father this man is, and the life-altering (not in a good way) this encounter has on his son.
“Dynamite Hole” starts with “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…” (13). While the first part of the sentence isn’t attention grabbing, the dead copperhead snake hanging around the narrator’s neck makes a reader pay attention. The rest of the story involves incest, rape, and murder–repulsing the reader while at the same time compelling the reader to finish the story.
“When the people in town said inbred, what they really meant was lonely” (39), or so the narrator says. Do the townspeople really mean lonely or do they really mean what ‘inbred’ implies? Lonely is one thing—kind of boring—but inbred is something else altogether. The reader is left to draw her own conclusions in “Hair’s Fate.”
Other opening lines that hook the reader:
“Nettie Russell died in the spring, and left her grandson, Todd, an old Ford Fairlane and a Maxwell House coffee jar with two thousand dollars in it, a fair sum of money in 1973” (70) opens “Schott’s Bridge.” What is Todd going to do with the money? At this point in the book, the reader can safely surmise it won’t be anything wise.
“I was staying out around Massieville with my crippled uncle because I was broke and unwanted everywhere else, and I spent most of my days changing his slop bucket and sticking fresh cigarettes in his smoke hole” (110) begins “Bactine.” The rest of the paragraph draws in the reader more firmly.
Strong opening sentences catch the reader’s attention throughout the book. Even though I found myself more than once wanting to put this book down and walk away, I kept reading, drawn in by Pollack’s strong opening sentences. What this writing has shown me is the importance of the hook, drawing your reader in from the first words, compelling her to keep reading, no matter how dark the stories may be.
Excerpt from Knockemstiff
Pollack, Donald Ray. Knockemstiff. New York: Anchor Books. 2009. Print.