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Set a place at 'The Heavenly Table'

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Bleak, surreal gothic novel defies easy categorization

Sometimes, you know exactly what you're getting from a book. Whether it's a familiar author or a familiar genre or a familiar whatever, you go in with certain expectations and have those expectations met. People gravitate toward that which they favor.

But sometimes, you find a book that defies categorization. A book that seems to be one thing before becoming something else, and then changing yet again. A book that refuses to rest quietly in its genre pigeonhole and for better AND for worse unapologetically goes a-roaming across the literary landscape.

Donald Ray Pollock's 'The Heavenly Table' (Doubleday, $27.95) is exactly that kind of nomadic novel, bringing together a variety of influences and attitudes into a book that is extremely visceral, darkly funny, incredibly violent and at times difficult to read.

It is also compelling as hell.

The year is 1917. A displaced farmer named Pearl Jewett is struggling to put together a living for himself and his three sons as they work as sharecroppers for a wealthy landowner named Major Tardweller. The three Jewett brothers the tack-sharp Cane (the eldest), amiable lug Cob (the middle child) and loose cannon Chimney (the youngest) are resigned to their hardscrabble lives, scratching out a living in the Southern dust.

But when Pearl passes on having devoted the last part of his life to a religious concept known as 'the heavenly table' the Jewett boys are left to decide just how they want the rest of their lives to unfold. The choices they make are steered in large part by a trashy potboiler novel called 'The Life and Times of Bloody Bill Bucket.' These choices lead to the Jewetts going on the run and developing quite an outsized reputation as they make their way north toward new lives in Canada.

Meanwhile, Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler are an aging farm couple struggling to make ends meet in Ohio. Ellsworth got swindled out of their life's savings, so all he can do is continue to work as he has always worked. Unfortunately, their drunken loafer of a son Eddie has disappeared, leaving Ells alone to try and find a way to keep the farm afloat.

Between these two tales, scores of other characters drop in and out of the narrative, offering up their own sad stories to various extents along the way. There's the commissioned officer at the military base in Ohio who views a battlefield death as the only dignified way out of a life of closeted homosexuality. There's the mobile brothel owner and his three girls who have set up shop near the base. There's the sadistic bar owner and the religiously confused outhouse monitor and so many more. Some of these characters get more page time than others, but all are given a chance to tell their strange, dark and often sad stories.

'The Heavenly Table' is not for the faint of heart. There's real violence at its center, visceral and extremely intense. The narrative refuses to sit still, wandering from straightforward grit to pulsing surreality to sardonic dark humor to blood-chilling hyperviolence sometimes in the space of a single page.

Even with that ever-shifting tone, Pollock manages to create a cast of characters that remains somehow grounded in a reality that doesn't always apply to the overarching narrative. Making even a handful of characters compelling is a daunting task for any writer; Pollock manages to bring a huge number of people to engaging life. Every one of these characters whether they're main players like the Jewetts and the Fiddlers or confined to just a scene or two feels fully realized. It's rare to read a book in which there are no throwaway characters, but every single person you meet in 'The Heavenly Table' is multi-dimensional.

Pollock's prose is evocative and intense; his carefully-crafted descriptions of people and places have a sort of ugly beauty that is tough to pin down. Comparisons have been made to writers like Cormac McCarthy (for the gothic nature of the work) and Tom Robbins (for the ambling absurdity), just to name a few. Basically, if you can imagine a world where a funnier McCarthy and an angrier Robbins collaborated on a book sometime in the early 1980s, you're in the neighborhood.

This sprawling, brawling story is undeniably engaging, though some might have a little difficulty stomaching the more graphic moments. That said, there's nothing gratuitous in the depravity that Pollock puts on display those beats, tough as they may be to read, are there for a very real, very important purpose. It's powerful stuff, choosing to eschew the usual good/bad dichotomy and showing us a world where the grey areas abound.

'The Heavenly Table' is bleak and unpleasant, powerful and compelling. Donald Ray Pollock has created a book that is both difficult to describe and well worth experiencing.

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2017 19:41

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