Three brothers’ journey of violence and mayhem is delivered with both humour and brutal honesty in Donald Ray Pollock’s historical novel
The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock | Harvill Secker, 384pp, £12.99
It might come as something of a surprise that so much of the best contemporary fiction – Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Annie Proulx’s Close Range, Percival Everett’s Wounded, Patrick de Witt’s The Sisters Brothers – is in a genre which has been routinely patronised: the Western. But the combination of visionary landscape, moral angst and a questioning about the meaning of America can become, in the right hands, truly epic. One can now add to this list Donald Ray Pollock’s truly fabulous The Heavenly Table.
Pollock is the author of an astonishing collection of short stories, Knockemstiff, and one previous novel, the brutal and glinting The Devil All The Time, a work that might be characterised as Southern Gothic. Both had a lyricism that astonishingly offset the descriptions of blighted lives, enervating boredom and sudden violence. All these traits are present in this historical novel, set in 1917, but combined with a very wry comedy.
The “heavenly table” of the title is the promised abundance after death which a Georgia sharecropper and religious fanatic uses to console his three sons from their lives of penury, toil and starvation. The eldest, Cane, is dutiful, careful and the only one able to read. Cob is good-natured but simple-witted and the youngest, Chimney, “couldn’t make up his mind between being good or evil, and so he tried his best to be both”. Cane offers his brothers a distraction by reading a dime shocker called The Life And Times Of Bloody Bill Bucket. When their old man dies, worked to death by the landowner, the boys decide that the pulp novel might be a better guide to life than their father’s celestial recompense. So they commence on a picaresque journey of robbery, mayhem and gunplay.
The brothers’ story is interwoven with several others. Ellsworth Fiddler is a struggling farmer who has been cheated out of his life savings by his alcoholic son. In Camp Pritchard, Lieutenant Vincent Bovard is looking forward to a glorious death on the Western Front. A pimp called Blackie Beeler sees the military camp as an opportunity to open a brothel; an African American who calls himself Sugar is struggling back to Kentucky after having failed in Detroit’s new Ford plants; Jasper Cone, a sanitation inspector, is keen to enforce the very letter of the law regarding outhouses. There are countless other cameos and vignettes, with the kaleidoscopic effect beguiling. How these very different lives intersect and interact is one of the pure joys of the novel.
When reviewing, I usually mark down pages with particularly well-honed phrases: I stopped doing so when reading The Heavenly Table as I would probably have bookmarked every page. For example, one chapter opens “Although Blackie tried to promote his new place as ‘The Celestial Harem of Earthly Delights’ it was hard for anyone to accept Virgil Brandon’s goat shed as being anything close to an exotic playground; and, to his dismay, it quickly became known simply as the ‘Whore Barn’.” The gap between rhetoric and reality gives some of the humour, but the brutally monosyllabic last words reinforce the squalid truth.
While the traditional Western was rightly criticised for its attitudes towards class, race, sexuality and gender, Pollock deftly makes these the central concerns of the novel. It is not done in a “politically correct” way, but emerges naturally from a vision that humans are always more complicated than they seem. While Knockemstiff and The Devil All The Time were unremitting in their diagnosis of cruelty and weakness, parts of The Heavenly Table are a bold attempt to show “decent” individuals, even when they may do unwise or immoral things. It gives a ground bass of melancholy to a book which is, on the surface, both witty and expansive.
The fact that it is a cheap thriller that inspires the Jewett Boys in their escapades gives a postmodern twist to the novel, over and above its capacity to talk about things that were not talked about in their time. The Jewetts have been taught to root for an underdog who was on the losing side of a war; they translate harmless escapism into dangerous action. I am tempted to say that anyone wanting to understand contemporary America’s political direction might be well advised to start with this novel.