The Heavenly Table
by donald ray pollock
doubleday, 384 pages, $27.95
A book by Donald Ray Pollock is always an entertaining ride, by turns riveting, hilarious, revolting, and poignant. But reading Pollock can be surreal if you grew up a mile down the road from him in Knockemstiff, Ohio, and knew him as “Dusty” back when he was a high-school classmate who goofed off and dropped out before your senior year, and as you read his fiction, which has achieved international critical acclaim, you find that it is full of descriptions of places you knew as an adolescent.
I had not heard from Pollock since high school until he emailed me out of the blue in 2008, telling me that he had heard I had written some books and he thought I might be interested to know that he had written a book of short stories titled Knockemstiff. I admit I was utterly surprised to hear it, and I assumed his book probably had been published by some little regional press. I would also have assumed, if I had thought of it at the time, that my grip on the (altogether mythical) title of “Most Accomplished Writer From Knockemstiff” was completely secure.
My surprise turned to astonishment when I looked the book up and discovered that it was published by Doubleday and had an enthusiastic endorsement from Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club, and that Pollock was being compared to writers like Flannery O’Connor. The unlikely story of how Pollock went from high-school dropout and truck driver to critically acclaimed author is one that has been told several times, and I will not repeat it here. But it is worth noting that after his second book, The Devil all the Time, a novel that garnered numerous awards, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship to help support the writing of his new one, The Heavenly Table.
The new novel focuses mainly on two families, the Jewetts and the Fiddlers, in 1917, just before the First World War. The Jewetts are composed of the father Pearl, and his three sons with the whiskey-inspired names of Cane, Cobb, and Chimney, who are living in dire poverty in Georgia, under the thumb of a ruthless plantation owner. Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler are a couple struggling to survive on a small farm in southern Ohio, who have an irresponsible son and have lost their small fortune to an obvious scam that has made Ellsworth a laughingstock in the community. The action really gets going after the death of Pearl, whose hardscrabble life derived meaning and motivation from his dreams about “the heavenly table.” The three brothers then set off on a crime spree inspired by the adventures of Bloody Bill Bucket, a character in a dime-store novel that Cane has read several times to his illiterate siblings. The chapters alternate between the two families until their inevitable meeting, when their stories converge and collide. Along the way, we meet numerous other characters whose stories are intertwined to one degree or another with those of the main characters.
As in his other books, Pollock’s genius is displayed in the exquisitely crafted prose that runs throughout pages that are undeniably on the extreme end of the “raw and gritty” scale. But the deeper beauty in his writing is conveyed in the fact that he never fails to show us the human predicament in all its depraved glory, as he describes his unforgettable cast of deviants and degenerates and their adventures and misadventures. The Jewett brothers are bad men who do bad things, but even as we are horrified and revolted by their actions (as well as those of other characters who are even worse), Pollock does not let us forget that they are men, and as such they have longings for happiness and beauty and meaning that are endemic to the human condition. Indeed, even as the Jewetts go on their crime spree, and do horrific things, we also see glimmers of hope for redemption as the brothers begin to feel warmth and empathy in ways they never had before. For instance, when two of the brothers, who have no sexual experience, visit the “whore barn,” they ironically experience stirrings of moral awareness as they compare their own lot with that of these unfortunate women. And most readers will be cheering for these outlaws, and hoping to see these glimmers of humanity fully realized.
What remains ambiguous in Pollock’s novels, however, is what sort of redemption, happiness, and meaning are possible. As someone who has written two books on heaven, I was particularly intrigued by the title of the new novel, and the theme of “the heavenly table” that runs through it. And the fact is, the predominant picture we get is that the hope of heaven is a vain illusion for hopeless people who are eager to grasp onto anything that will make this life a little more tolerable. Indeed, early on, we see that two of the brothers put more stock in Bloody Bill Bucket’s vision of reality than in any sort of heavenly vision:
And though Cane knew the book was fictitious, sometimes it seemed closer to the truth than anything they had read in their mother’s Bible. According to Charles Foster Winthrop III, the world was an unjust, despicable place lorded over by a select pack of the rich and ruthless, and the only way for a poor man to get ahead was to ignore the laws they enforced on everybody but themselves.
This is the blunt version of what many modern and postmodern thinkers have been telling us for centuries. At best, we will never be fully at home in this universe, and at worst, violence and power are the engine that drives the human race. Either way, death will put an end to our dreams of happiness once and for all, and the sooner we grow up and come to terms with this, the better off we will be.
In contrast to this dismal view stands the promise of the heavenly table, but it is notable that the primary proponents of this hope are either mentally unstable, or goodhearted but dull. Pearl first arrives at the notion of the heavenly table in a mystical encounter with a stranger wearing sackcloth and following an immortal white bird that appears to be the product of his mad delusions. And it is Cobb, his slow middle son, who latches onto the notion and obsesses over it after his father has died. But as the story comes to its poignant conclusion, there is more than a hint that perhaps the hope of the heavenly table is not just a desperate delusion.
In a recent interview, Pollock was asked: “What fictional character would you most like to have a drink with, and why?” Many readers of his books would likely be surprised by his answer: “That’s a tough one. Maybe the Congregationalist minister, John Ames, in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, because he’s a kind, decent man, and I admire that type of person more than any other. We would, of course, have coffee.”
The unforgettable characters in Pollock’s own novels are not kindly Congregationalist minister types. One of the awards won by his previous novel, The Devil all the Time, was “Badass Book of the Month,” from GQ magazine. And it is safe to say many of Pollock’s readers love his books for their “badass” qualities. Still, there is far more going on in his pages than raucous adventure and creative perversion. Bloody Bill Bucket’s voice is undoubtedly louder, but the voice of the Reverend John Ames may be heard in the background for those who are listening carefully. And perhaps it is that voice Pollock most wants us to hear.
Jerry L. Walls is Scholar in Residence and Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?