By Donald Ray Pollock — In the early 20th century, the three Jewett brothers are under the thumb of their crazily religious, impoverished failure of a father. He’s working them practically to death in the swampy field they’re clearing near the Georgia-Alabama border. The wealthy landowner has promised that if they meet some impossible deadline, he will give them 10 laying hens. If so, maybe they will finally have something to eat. What the reader knows is he has no intention of keeping that promise.
A couple of states north, in southern Ohio, live the elderly farmer Ellsworth Fiddler and his wife Eula, also struggling. The previous year, Ells gave all the savings Eula had scraped together over the decades to a flim-flam man who stole the family’s pride and hope along with their cash.
The title of this literary crime novel reveals its theme. Early on, Pearl Jewett encounters a mysterious hobo with a long grizzled beard who tells him about the heavenly table. There, a man’s hungers will be satisfied, but only those who have suffered in life can sit there. God gives men the chance to suffer by bringing them troubles. Thereafter, Pearl actively pursues misery for himself and his boys, to ensure their place there.
When Pearl dies, the three boys fall into a life of crime, stealing guns and robbing stores and banks on their way north to Canada. They soon become wanted men, with a heavy price on their heads. They need to lie low for a while, which brings them to a brief sojourn on the farm of Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler near the small town of Meade.
Many other colorful characters weave in and out of the brothers’ lives, including Jasper Cone, the Meade “sanitarian,” whose job is to assess the functioning of the town’s hundreds of outhouses; Sugar, a black man whom the trio encounters and torments; Pollard, owner of the Blind Owl bar and a sadistic killer; and Lieutenant Bovard at the nearby army camp who dreams of dying in glory in France.
Reviewers of Pollock’s previous books, Knockemstiff and The Devil All the Time, compared him to William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor for his gothic southernness and unsettling storylines. This book reminds me of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, deemed a comic masterpiece. The Heavenly Table has its brief comic moments, though it’s mostly the darkest of Southern Noir.
Living in squalor, uneducated, making bad decisions, drinking too much, and succumbing to violence, few of the characters have any hope for redemption in this life or of reaching “the heavenly table” in the next. But as Jason Sheehan said for NPR, by the end of the book, it turns “a smart and complicated corner, asking (without ever really asking) who are the bad men and who are the good? And just how much blame for badness can be laid at the feet of those who know nothing and fear everything, who have no recourse to change but that it be met with furious violence?”
To read this book, you’ll need a strong stomach and may want a hot shower afterward, but you’ll never forget Pollock’s compelling characters and powerful writing.
A longer version of this review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com.