Donald Ray Pollock's newest novel, The Heavenly Table, is a book about time.
It's a book about the Jewett brothers, Cane (the smart one), Cob (the ox) and Chimney (the crazy one), who own two books, a Bible and a dime-store pulp, swollen and falling to pieces, called The Life And Times Of Bloody Bill Bucket, which they use as their guiding light into a life of crime.
It's a book about Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler and their drunk son Eddie who disappears one night, maybe to join the army, to fight the Huns in a country that none of them can find on a map.
It's a book about people — a hundred of them, all drunk, terrible, stupid, murderous, horny, confused and afraid, often all at the same time. These people cross paths. They exert a gravitational weight on each other, bending orbits to slight or significant degrees.
But mostly, it's a book about time. About America in 1917, which isn't terribly specific within the bounds of the novel because "1917" itself is almost a fiction. Just numbers on a calendar, made meaningless in their inconsistent and unequal application to the land and its people who, variously, appear to be living in 1817, 1717 and, in some cases, the Dark Ages.
The Heavenly Table is a book about time because it is a book about displacement and the ways in which the onrushing future impacts the solidity of the past. When the Jewett brothers flee their home upon the death of their father, Pearl, and the (almost) accidental murder of their landlord, Major Tardweller, Pollock has them first lay out and catalog all of their earthly possessions:
Lighting the lantern, they laid everything they owned out on a blanket: a 12-gauge shotgun with a busted stock and three slightly damp shells, seven dollars in gold pieces along with the change from Pearl's pocket, their mother's Bible and The Life And Times Of Bloody Bill Bucket, a nearly full bottle of Morning Dew whiskey that Pearl kept strictly for medicinal purposes, a straight razor, two pots and one blackened skillet, their bedrolls and a cracked mirror, a hammer, a butcher knife, four plates and three tin cups, their coats and a pencil stub.
And that is it. All of it.
Later, Ellsworth and Eula, wondering about Eddie, pay a visit to the schoolteacher in hopes that he will have a map and can point out Germany to them because neither of them can read. When he does (and shows them, too, where Ohio is), they sigh in relief. It doesn't seem so far off. Eula asks what that big blue blob is between Ohio and Germany and the schoolteacher tells her it is the Atlantic Ocean. To Ellsworth, it seems small.
"Why that don't look no bigger than Clancy's pond," he says.
And he is not dumb. Just mystified. Just incapable of considering the scale of things because distance (and the time it takes to cross it) is an alien concept to someone who has never been further from home than the next town over. Who has never read a book or met anyone who wasn't a neighbor.
This happens again and again. Airplanes, cars, machineguns, indoor plumbing — Pollock's characters all live in the slipstream of this onrushing future, their lives upended by engines and automation, milking machines, telegraphs and a great war that they don't understand.
The result is a story that reads almost like surrealism — like weird fiction save for the certain fact that all of it is real. In its bloody, violent, terrible collisions, The Heavenly Table feels like Blood Meridian if Cormac McCarthy had been born with a streak of black humor in him rather than just terseness and rage. Or like an early, freaky Tom Robbins novel if Robbins had been a mean-hearted sadist to whom death (ugly, swift and meaningless) had been the only natural conclusion to every paragraph. It is a book that leaves a sheen of filth on you when you read it. Which makes you taste the road dust and pig's feet (and worse), and see some things that you can never un-see.
But by the end of it — by the time the curling paths of the Fiddlers and the Jewetts and a dozen-odd other random characters have twined together — it has also turned 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?
Time, in the end, will catch up with them all.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphiamagazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.