****The Heavenly Table

Heavenly TableBy 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.

****Wise Blood

Brad Dourif, Wise Blood, Preacher

Brad Dourif in John Huston’s Wise Blood

By Flannery O’Connor – It’s daunting to try to add something substantive to the voluminous commentary written and discussed about this first entry in Flannery O’Connor’s remarkable canon. But yet, every good book demands careful attention of its readers. And every reading is the chance to make new discoveries and find new insights, at least for oneself.

My reading group tackled this one yesterday. While the novel didn’t have any characters with whom we could identify (or maybe even much like), the fact that it stimulated a lively hour-and-a-half discussion was strong testimony as to its depth. Almost every member of the group sought out additional resources, online lectures, background on O’Connor, critical appraisals, and the like. One of our group watched the well-regarded John Huston movie version and said it helped her understanding a lot and makes the humor clear (nice review of it here)!(trailer)

O’Connor wrote the book over a five-year period ending in the early 1950’s, and we speculated how it would have been perceived in that era, given that it is still fairly opaque today, when experimental and unconventional fiction and characters are much more common. The characters in this book are like trains on a confusion of separate tracks, occasionally crossing, but fundamentally heading to their own destination, pursuing their own ends.

My reading group is a mix. Some have lived in the South, some grew up or have lived in other countries, and they had varying exposures to religiosity, though the religious leanings of the principal character, Hazel Motes, are unique to him. He’s a self-styled preacher for the Church Without Christ (of which he was the originator and sole member). The notions of penance and redemption are fundamental to the story, even if Motes pursues them in a herky-jerky, self-destructive fashion.

I went back to Sally Fitzgerald’s collection of O’Connor’s letters to find what the author herself said about what she intended with this book. Writing about a rather confusing review, “the last part [of which was] about the impiety & lack of love in the book & all that,” she wrote, “It seems to me the form of love in it is penance, as good a form as any other under Mr. Motes circumstances.”

This book is a classic of Southern Gothic writing, and I especially appreciate how she dealt with the question of the book’s “sources.” She wrote, “I have one of those food-chopper brains that nothing comes out the way it went in.” Which is why, sixty years later, it can be still be pulled apart, discussed, and new insights discovered.