Out of Some Bygone Era
The Heavenly Table
By Donald Ray Pollock
In August 1917, the United States had just entered World War I. The abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm was still fifteen months away. Before then, over one hundred thousand Americans would die, more than in any conflict since the Civil War. But few, if any, of the many characters in Donald Ray Pollock’s The Heavenly Table can locate Germany on a map, let alone concern themselves with politics outside the country in which they were born and in which they will probably die. “To Americans, the Great War in France was as remote as, say, the Second War in the Solomon Islands,” writes the historian Paul Fussell. “‘Over There’ (meaning way Over There) is characteristically an American … song of war.”
Over here, on the border of Georgia and Alabama, the sharecropper Pearl Jewett begins to see the ghosts of “an extended family of dead mulattos from Louisiana” who were murdered by his boss, Major Thaddeus Tardweller. When Pearl dies of a heart attack, his three sons—Cane, Cob, and Chimney—bury him by a hog pen, kill Tardweller, and embark on a string of bank robberies largely modeled on “the crumbling, water-stained dime novel” they have been reading and rereading for years, The Life and Times of Bloody Bill Bucket. Often, The Heavenly Table reads like literary pulp, never too shy for hard-boiled lines—“It was as if he couldn’t make up his mind between being good or evil, and so he tried his best to be both,” Pollock writes of Cob—but more ambitious than the yellowed Western paperbacks like Bloody Bill.
As the brothers turn fiction into reality, the newspapers turn reality back into fiction, and their exploits push the war off the front pages; one paper reports that
a night watchman in Savannah…claimed that he fired six rounds point-blank into one of the Jewett Gang, the chubby one with the moon head, and watched as the criminal laughed them off as if the bullets weren’t any more lethal than mosquito bites or the good-night kisses of some sweet, innocent child.
But media frenzy is a little out of place in this world. One of their few surviving victims thinks the Jewett brothers look “as if they had accidentally stepped out of some bygone era and were searching for a way back to where they belonged,” a characterization that seems appropriate for nearly everyone Pollock writes about. The Lieutenant Vincent Claremont Bovard, a closeted homosexual who eschews suicide for death on the Western Front, is disappointed to find that the men under his command “were a far cry from the muscle-bound sackers of Troy or the disciplined defenders of Sparta he had been infatuated with since the age of twelve.” He is forced to concede that his treasured “ancient ideals and traditions…couldn’t even begin to compete with the ego-driven, cannibalistic forces of twentieth-century capitalism.”
As Chimney becomes increasingly violent, the brothers arrive in Southern Ohio, where they stay with the farmer Elsworth Fiddler and his wife, Eula. Their son, Eddie, turned drunk and left home after the family savings were drained by a con man, and Eula’s bond with Cob suggests possible redemption for all three.
Meanwhile, minor characters worry over “newfangled milking machines” and the future of the Palmer Method of penmanship—in the latter case, the prediction that it will become irrelevant at the end of the century requires the revival of two old ladies with “smelling salts and tiny dabs of sweet sherry,” a moment typical of the book’s wonderfully wry and deadpan sense of humor.
Pollock’s uneasiness with modernity is nothing new. His first book, the excellent short story collection Knockemstiff, claustrophobically depicts a ghost town in rural Ohio. Its characters engage in a merry-go-round of violence, incest, and religion, and the closest they come to experiencing contemporary life is by huffing Bactine out of plastic bags. (“BACTINE: BETTER LIVING THRU CHEMISTRY!” Pollock wrote in my copy of Knockemstiff.) In his second book, the uneven novel The Devil All the Time, a pair of serial killers takes a road trip across the Midwest during the height of the sixties, but the couple manages to dodge every major upheaval of the time. Now, with The Heavenly Table, Pollock has covered the entirety of the twentieth century, and yet what is most striking is the fact that each period appears virtually the same. These are stagnant lives, caught between parochial social structures and the advance of industry—“The cavalry would soon be a thing of the past,” Lieutenant Bovard thinks to himself, “modern, mechanized warfare had taken care of that.”
As always, Pollock’s prose mimics the terse and crude speech of his characters, but he is also a memorable aphorist. The companion of a playboy is “just another brainless suction pump looking for a rich husband,” and “her entire bag of tricks could have easily been replicated by half a dozen other mammals.” A widowed farmer who doubles as landlord to a pimp affectionately recalls that his overweight wife would make “the bed roll like an ocean every time she attempted to turn over in her sleep.” Of a boy who has joined a posse to catch the Jewett Gang, he writes, “The biggest disappointment of his life so far had been, in fact, his life so far.” Here, as elsewhere, Pollock employs a tone that is faithful to his material but displays a liquid facility that surpasses the expressive talents of anyone in the novel.
Pollock is working within the tradition of the Southern Gothic, most notably by way of William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, and Toni Morrison—“Major Thaddeus Tardweller” sounds like a forgotten antagonist of the Snopes family. But he also shares a meticulous sense of place and space with Thomas Hardy. Hardy’s biographer Michael Millgate writes that Wessex allowed him to act as regional historian recording the details of a vanishing way of life. Pollock, too, populates his fiction with asides and digressions that play to his strength as a short story writer, and steep his America in a long associative history. When the Jewett brothers discover a sword outside of Atlanta, they are “unaware that over fifty years before, some Northern soldiers working point for Sherman’s army had used it to mark the spot where they had buried one of their comrades, a fat and jolly shoemaker from Boston who was singing an aria from The Barber of Seville when the top of his head was sheared off by a sniper’s powder ball.” A map in the local schoolhouse “had been donated…probably around the same time John Wilkes Booth was making his final curtain call.” And the author of Bloody Bill, Charles Foster Winthrop III, fills his book
with every act of rape, robbery, and murder that his indignant, syphilitic brain could possibly conceive. For this, his twentieth such potboiler in less than three years, he was paid the niggardly sum of thirty dollars. By the time he settled with his creditors, and spent an hour passing diseases back and forth with the foul and wrinkled whore who lived across the hall in his building, Winthrop didn’t have enough money left over to buy a loaf of bread. ‘Well,’ he said that night to the vermin living behind the cracked plaster in his dank room, ‘I gave it my best, and that’s all a man can do.’ He waited until morning, and then, with the same cool steadiness he had conferred upon Bloody Bill, his final creation, the hack brushed the rat turds off his one good suit and chugged down enough turpentine to peel the paint off a two-story house.
Each of these digressions quietly link his landscape with anachronism, enervation, and degeneration, while the ghosts of the past, such as the “dead mulattos from Louisiana” who materialized before Pearl Jewett, re-emerge to haunt the country’s inheritors and point to a future that excludes the men and women of The Heavenly Table. Furthermore, Pollock is preserving the past that his characters have themselves allowed to disappear (note that the narrator is the only one who remembers the Boston shoemaker), thus doing the double work of chronicling the supporting cast of both the early twentieth century and the Civil War.
Like Hardy, then, Pollock plays cultural historian, cataloguing the lives that tend to be forgotten, condescended to, or dismissed by much contemporary fiction, just as Hardy’s interests lay in the people who were excluded from the intellectual and capitalist milieu of Oxford and London. However, his Southeast and Midwest do diverge from Wessex in their limited commitment to verisimilitude. Pollock is less concerned with historical authenticity than with capturing the ethos of his place. Charles Foster Winthrop III, with his theatrical name and his poetic depravity, belongs more to an idea of the past than he does to factual reality.
Consequently, the result is a mix between dirty realism and frontier mythology minus the optimism of the frontier. While The Devil All the Time suffered from Pollock’s transition to the longer form of the novel, The Heavenly Table succeeds in unifying a series of long and short narrative strands into a cohesive whole. Without sacrificing irony, his writing possesses a sincerity that has no time for late-postmodern gaming, and while remaining committed to realist conventions, his blue-collar sensibility distinguishes him from contemporary practitioners like Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides. Perhaps his entire project is best summed up by the desolate but hopeful sanitation inspector, ahead of his fellow townsfolk for his interest in indoor plumbing, who allows himself a brief fantasy about life as a millionaire: “I’d quit my job and build the biggest bathroom this country’s ever seen.” Like Pollock’s fiction, his dreams are simultaneously large and small; they are parochial and hesitantly progressive, ambitious but ignorant of the scope of modernity that, as American soldiers return from the front, is about to deplete the remains of a past that has already largely disappeared.
Aaron Botwick is a Ph.D. candidate in English at The Graduate Center, CUNY. He teaches English and composition at Lehman College and Borough of Manhattan Community College