Despite only having two published books, Donald Ray Pollock is one of my favorite authors. For over a year (about two seconds after I heard he was publishing one), I’ve been looking forward to the release of his new novel, The Heavenly Table (with thanks to Doubleday Books for my copy). I was not disappointed, though I can’t quite say that his sophomore novel is better than his debut (The Devil All the Time is in a league of its own). Following the Jewett brothers – Cane, Cob, and Chimney – The Heavenly Table takes place in 1917 southern Ohio. Living in poverty and on the verge of starvation, the sudden death of their father releases the Jewett brothers from their misery and sets them on a course they’d only ever imagined. They become outlaws in the tradition of (the fictional) Bloody Bill Bucket. Before they know it, they are a legendary gang of thieves, rapists, and murderers with a huge bounty on their heads – though the legends are far more preposterous than their true crimes.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are Eula and Ellsworth Fiddler, a naïve farming couple barely scarping by. An assortment of other characters fill the novel, from outhouse inspector and manhood wrangler Jasper Cone to the Roman military enthusiast Lieutenant Bovard. Both perverse and violent, this novel is not without humor and heart. It’s absolutely filled to the brim with southern gothic goodness (just don’t expect any good). If there is a weakness, it’s in the sheer number of characters, but I enjoyed it all the same. In Pollock’s distinctive prose, the reader is taken for a wild, gritty ride that cannot be easily forgotten.
As for the average reader, this book presents an inscrutable dilemma. It’s a good book, but it’s dark, dismal, and full of black humor. I think the average reader could appreciate Pollock’s brilliant writing and dialogue, even if the subject causes one to cringe now and again. He has a wondrous sense of place and character, but, quite honestly, there are just certain things you can’t unread. They percolate in your mind and one day you find yourself thinking “so a ham and a whore are essentially the same thing…?” Would I recommend it? Yes, just know your audience (and read The Devil All the Time first).
A couple of hours later, as they made their way through a thorny brake in single file, Cob turned in his saddle and looked back at Chimney. “Can I ask ye something?” he said.
“If’n one of them whores you talk about is worth two or three dollars, how much ye figure a good ham cost?”
“Oh, probably about the same, I reckon. They wouldn’t be much difference between a whore and a ham.”
“Well, then,” Cob said, “how many of them could we buy with the money we got?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe a hundred.”
“Whew,”Cob exclaimed. “That sounds like a lot.”
“Yeah, it’d take a day or two to fuck that many.”
“No, I mean, that’s a lot of hams, ain’t it?”
Chimney laughed. “You’re goddamn right it is. Why, if ye was to eat that many hams, ye’d probably turn into a pig yourself.”
“Oh, that’d be fine with me,” Cob said. “All they do is lay around in the mud all day while somebody feeds ’em horseweeds and slop. Shoot, what more could a feller want out of life than that?”