Donald Ray Pollock: Badass Writer, Nice Guy

Donald Ray Pollock's debut short-story collection, 2008's Knockemstiff, was something of an unexpected sensation —unexpected in that Pollock was a first-time author at age 53; a sensation in that the stories were driven by a visceral, sharp-edged prose style and a narrative thrust as sensitive as it was savage.

Knockemstiff was rightly praised by everyone from The New York Times to Chuck Palahniuk (“more engaging than any new fiction in years”) to literary savant Michael Silverblatt, whose incisive KCRW radio show Bookworm featured an interview with the author. —-

Born and raised in the actual Knockemstiff (a small, decaying town about an hour east of Cincinnati), Pollock quit high school his junior year (several decades later he would earn a graduate degree in English at Ohio State) to work in a meatpacking plant. It wasn’t long before he moved on to a paper mill in nearby Chillicothe, Ohio, where he worked for nearly 30 years and which was no doubt the inspiration for many of Pollock's dead-end characters and depraved narrative turns — think Harmony Korine's Gummo as described by Raymond Carver.

Now comes Pollock's first full-length novel, the unsurprisingly grim-titled The Devil All the Time, freshly published in hardback this week by Doubleday. I've yet to partake (my copy arrived at the office late last week), but it's already garnering rave reviews, including this blurb from Esquire magazine: “So humid is The Devil All the Time with moral grime that the characters seem always to be gasping for a breath of divine intervention — some through prayer, others through murder and creepy sex.”

(Here's a roundup of reviews: Entertainment Weekly, Columbus Dispatch, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly.

Given the tough, perpetually debauched subject matter of Pollock's stories, it might come as a surprise to know that he's one of the most genial, accommodating author's I've ever encountered. In 2008 I moderated a short-story panel at the Books by the Banks festival called “The Short Story: Dead or Alive (We’d Like to Know)." It featured Pollock, whose Knockemstiff was getting a lot of attention at the time, and Moira Crone, a gifted short-story writer from New Orleans (check out her collection Dream State, among others). (Read my 2008 pre-Books by the Banks feature on Pollock here.)

After the panel — during which we decided that the short story wasn't in fact dead, just under-appreciated — I grabbed lunch with Pollock, who proceeded to tell me about his Ohio roots, his encounter with the slightly eccentric Rosenblatt and more about his unconventional route to published author. I told him about my Ohio roots, my odd fascination with Rosenblatt's Bookworm and my slightly unconventional route to published journalist.

Of course, you don't have to take my positive, reassuring opinion of Pollock seriously — stop by Joseph-Beth Booksellers, where the he'll with be talking about The Devil All the Time, tomorrow night (7 p.m. July 14, to be exact) to find out for yourself.