A man walks into a bar and we get the barkeep’s life story for the next page, then never see that barkeep in any significant way again. A new character appears at the start of one chapter. We get his whole history. He seems charismatic, the kind of hero we need in this story, but he’s dead by the end of that chapter, never to appear again.
Donald Ray Pollock certainly knows the characters of his latest novel, The Heavenly Table, well. He can – and does – give the reader a complete backstory for almost every minor character. These backstories are often humorous. And, unfortunately, that seems to be the only reason they’re there: to add humour rather than add to the story.
There’s the mother who calls the doctor to reduce the size of her twelve-year-old son’s huge penis. The boy grows up be an outhouse inspector who spends his day dipping his long pole into people’s faeces. Then there’s ‘the third soldier’, an only child with some kind of OCD who had a ‘fervent desire to make it home and never have to eat a chicken that had accidentally brushed up against the mashed potatoes’.
These tangents distract from the main action in what would otherwise be an action-packed novel. We’ve got three brothers on a murderous rampage across several states with a record reward for their capture – dead or alive, of course. There are bounty hunters and posses chasing them, towns and communities fearing them, all while other young American men are getting enlisted to fight the Germans in the far off Great War.
Meanwhile, the newspapers are spreading lies about the brothers, giving them credit for crimes they could never have committed. There’s a father who’d been conned out of his life savings and who now gets false information about the whereabouts of his son. There are local politicians and public servants dishing the dirt on each other, backstabbing and sniping. This story tackles fake news – such a common contemporary issue – in a century-old context. It’s got political commentary as well as gruesome murders.
Well … while this could have been another Cormac McCarthy, it ended up being much more like an American Tom Sharpe. Which is great, if you like that sort of thing.
Any Cop?: Despite all the distractions, there is an engaging story in The Heavenly Table, but with all that unnecessary detail, it’s easy to skim through and lose interest in even the main action.