I was a few chapters into “The Heavenly Table,” and I wasn’t sure if Donald Ray Pollock was aiming for a dark drama, or if he was writing a comedy. The dialogue was so Coen-esque I was chuckling aloud as I read, but I was laughing about desperate people living desperate lives.
Pollock’s characters are survivors, just barely holding on to the frayed edges of the American dream. I recently read Nancy Isenberg’s history of America’s underclass “White Trash,” and Pollock’s novel-length yarn makes a funny and discomforting companion book.
The novel follows the converging storylines of several characters living in the Midwest United States. After Pearl Jewett’s ignominious death, his three adult sons embark on a crime spree worthy of the pulp novel they carry with them and serves as their Bible and entertainment: “The Life and Times of Bloody Bill Bucket.”
Cane, Cob and Chimney soon become wanted outlaws as they cluelessly rob, pillage and murder their way from Alabama to Ohio, leaping from one outlandish situation to another.
Several other subplots alternate with the main story of the Jewett brothers. In Southern Ohio, Ellsworth Fiddler struggles with finding his lazy, runaway son and living with the guilt over how he was swindled out of the family savings. Jasper Cone lines up a job monitoring the outhouses in Meade. While preventing poisonous overflows, he also becomes adept at diagnosing health problems in the local population.
Pollock has a taste for the macabre, the disturbing and the disturbingly funny. He’ll hatch a scene that feels like he’s making it too outlandish and make it work. To say Pollock confronts the dark aspects of humanity is an understatement. Many of his characters are misogynistic, racist, misanthropic and homophobic. Chaos, violence, depravity and general meanness abound. The humor is often vulgar and scatological. As the outlaw Cob observes, most people aren’t as decent as they imagine themselves to be. Pollock explores the limits of this decency.
Every character gets a backstory. If a group of men stumble upon an old confederate sword marking the final resting point of a person (and possible Confederate treasure), Pollock lets you know a little bit about the man who used to inhabit the body. In Pollock’s novel, every life matters enough to get a story, even if that life is miserable and barreling towards trouble. It all adds to the richness of the novel.
Pollock’s characters are trapped in historical times that they don’t understand. A World War is happening, but an ongoing joke is that the characters don’t know much about the war or even where Germany or Russia are on a map. They exist outside of history, unaware or unable to grapple with the larger world.
The only filmmakers that I’d want to see attempt a movie of this material are the Coen brothers. “The Heavenly Table” is a vulgar and profane satire. Pollock pulls it off and makes it look easy. Cross Mark Twain with Cormac McCarthy and throw in some Quentin Tarantino and you’ll get an idea of Pollock’s style.