The origin of Donald Ray Pollock’s literary career has always seemed stranger than fiction. After decades working at a southern Ohio paper mill, he wrote Knockemstiff, a short-story collection that won national acclaim. Now that he’s established—his second novel, The Heavenly Table, comes out this month—the stories he writes in the shed behind his Chillicothe home are winning awards and thrilling readers as far away as Germany and France. “It’s been an amazing ride,” he says.
That’s not a bad way to describe The Heavenly Table. Set in 1917, the novel follows three brothers in the nowhere-near-Reconstructed South who decide to steal and murder their way to a better life. On the lam, they meet all kinds of crazy characters, each treated in Pollock’s darkly humorous style: An oft-drunk musician ends one bender by stealing some baby chicks and eating them alive, only to wake up “with a raging headache and a tiny beak stuck between his two front teeth.”
What holds it all together is the book’s pulpy suspense, with most of the characters heading toward a collision in—where else?—southern Ohio. But how do Pollock’s European readers take his accounts of heartland America? “I have to explain, No that’s not what they’re like,” Pollock says with a laugh. “Well, there are a few like that. But the majority of them are decent people.”