Sunday, January 22, 2017

Book Review: The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock

The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock

Hardcover, 384 pages Published July 2016 by Doubleday

There are a few critics whose opinions I value more than others. This book got the top slot on "The novel Pursuit" top ten list by California critic Marvin Vernon. Since it was his novel of the year I was very interested. I can say right off the bat I didn't like this novel as much Vernon, but after reading this book I can also understand why he liked it and I didn't.

The Heavenly Table is hillbilly noir set in backwoods Ohio in the nineteen-teens around the same time as the first world war was raging in Germany. The narrative has a main point of view family in the Jewitt gang, but interludes and side characters make up a thinly connected mosaic.

The Jewitt family made up of three brothers Chimney, Cane and Cob have grown-up with Pearle a widowed illiterate farmer. Their father believes the heavenly table they go to after death is what is important. They are poor dirt poor when Pearle suddenly passes the boys feel sudden freedom. No one to tell them not to eat all their food, to go to bed. They have a brother who can read and they are all about pulp western books about Bucket Bloody Bill. Why not become outlaws? They need money and food and start by robbing a bank. They want to avoid violence, but as you might suspect their plans don't exactly work out. Their outlaw life does in many ways mirrors the pulps they love.

The Heavenly Table also follows several other characters some directly connected to the story, some with very thin connections. This is one place where the novel lost me. Sometimes this move away from the main narrative confused me. When I hooked on the main story - ten pages on some other unconnected story can lose my attention. There is a subplot about a Gay solider that was more interesting to me than most of the other interludes.

The prose is excellent, the characters are vivid and Pollock paints a grim world. That said there is some weird off beat humor and it is not stretch to compare this book to Cormac McCarthy. I think my problems with the book was a lack or narrative clarity, and a personal dislike for how redneck the book was. Not sure I was in the mood to be in this world.

That said I didn't enjoy this novel, but I respect it enough I am interested to read more by this author.

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