Skip to main content

The Heavenly Table


The Heavenly Table

From his story collection KNOCKEMSTIFF and his first novel, THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME, Donald Ray Pollock already has earned recognition as a hard-edged writer who’s not afraid to root about in some of life’s less hospitable neighborhoods. His new novel, THE HEAVENLY TABLE, will only burnish that reputation. Set in 1917, it’s a skillfully arranged marriage of Northern and Southern Gothic that evokes Flannery O’Connor’s fiction and Quentin Tarantino’s films in a stark portrait of a group of characters willing to do almost anything to help them prevail in a literal fight for survival.

The most desperate of these characters are Cane, Cob and Chimney Jewett, the sons of Pearl Jewett, an impoverished sharecropper who wanders with them along the border between Alabama and Georgia, after losing the battle to save his farm when his wife dies after a long illness. Pearl himself dies suddenly, amid a trek that “seemed to intentionally follow the road that promised the most misery,” and the Jewett boys must choose between continuing their near slave-like toil for an oppressive landowner and starvation.

"...a skillfully arranged marriage of Northern and Southern Gothic that evokes Flannery O’Connor’s fiction and Quentin Tarantino’s films in a stark portrait of a group of characters willing to do almost anything to help them prevail in a literal fight for survival."

Instead, they embark on a crime spree that brings to mind the exploits of Bonnie and Clyde, both for its audacity and the certainty that it will not end well for them. Cane, the only one of the Jewett Gang who’s able to read, regales his brothers with stories drawn from a pulp novel, The Life and Times of Bloody Bill Bucket, the story of a former Confederate soldier turned bank robber in the Old West, providing inspiration and ill-conceived guidance for their crimes.

The Jewetts eventually make their way to Meade, a small southern Ohio town, where their lives intersect with those of Ellsworth Fiddler, a farmer who’s still despondent a year after losing his life savings to a con artist, and his wife Eula. The Fiddlers themselves are only one bad corn crop away from economic ruin. Meade is also home to a large military camp where soldiers are training, after America’s declaration of war against Germany in April 1917, for deployment to France. One of that number is Lt. Vincent Bovard, a classics graduate of Kenyon College, who imagines a battlefield death as noble as any Greek warrior, after an encounter with a prostitute confirms his homosexuality.

Pollock’s rural and small town America of 1917 is not a pretty place, but it’s precisely and honestly rendered here. Misogyny (in the form of a brothel known as the Whore Barn that’s adjacent to the military encampment) and racism (in the story of George “Sugar” Milford, a black man making his way back home to Kentucky after his brief sojourn at the Detroit Ford plant and a love affair end badly) are as omnipresent as the air. The world of the novel’s characters, many of whom are illiterate, is a little less circumscribed than that of a medieval peasant.

Though it’s separated by exactly a century from each, this territory would be far more familiar to someone living during the presidency of James Monroe than it would a citizen of the United States in the age of Barack Obama. Most of these characters share lives similar to one of whom it’s said that the “biggest disappointment of his life so far had been, in fact, his life so far.” And yet, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for the Fiddlers, in all their earnest toil, and the Jewetts, even at their most murderous. These are people who are barely able to cope with the world as it exists, and it’s likely their lives will only worsen with the acceleration of change --- reflected here by the arrival of automobiles, airplanes and America’s looming involvement in a catastrophic European war.

Whether he’s describing a bank robbery or the sexual exploitation of women, Pollock doesn’t shrink from depictions of violence, though there is an undercurrent of dark humor in the novel. That’s reflected in one of the story’s more appealing characters, Jasper Cone, Meade’s overzealous sanitation inspector, whose job it is to police the town’s outhouses and fine residents who allow theirs to overflow. As he mucks about in the town’s raw sewage, it’s as if he’s also plumbing the depths of its moral decay.

For all its many strengths, THE HEAVENLY TABLE is not a flawless novel. Ratcheting up the gore, Pollock adds an unnecessary and underdeveloped subplot involving a serial killer whose appetites are suggestive of Hannibal Lecter. And though he expertly sustains the novel’s tension as an apocalyptic confrontation between the Jewetts and law enforcement appears inevitable, the climax doesn’t deliver quite the gut punch impliedly promised by the rest of the novel. Still, those shortcomings don’t diminish the pleasure to be derived from this master’s exploration of some of the blackest corners of life’s dark alleyways.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on July 15, 2016

The Heavenly Table
by Donald Ray Pollock