Book Review : Donald Ray Pollock - The Heavenly Table (2016)
The Devil All The Time, by Donald Ray Pollock is one of the two best novels I've read in close to nine years running this site *. Never before I had seen or read anything that depicted religious faith in such stark and complex fashion. It shaped lives, destroyed others and ran mid-century America like the Holy Ghost. I was reluctant to pick up Donald Ray Pollock's follow-up novel The Heavenly Table when it first came out, because I was still riding the intellectual high from The Devil All The Time. While I was predictably disappointed by The Heavenly Table, it was still a complex and engaging portrait of the past like only Pollock can write.
So, The Heavenly Table is the story of two families. The Jewetts, three dispossessed brothers from the south and the Fiddlers, which are mainly two concerned parents looking for their teenage son Eddie. Looking to escape their extreme poverty after the unforeseen death of their father, Cane, Cob and Chimney Jewett steal their landlord's horses and start an anachronistic outlaw gang, tearing through the red states up to Ohio where the Fiddlers live. Their families, both torn apart by a changing world, are on collision course and might just find redemption in one another.
All right, this novel couldn't possibly live up to its overachieving older brother The Devil All The Time, but it did all right for itself. Donald Ray Pollock is a meticulous craftsman and he was definitely more preoccupied with creating a vibrant period piece than exploring a particular theme. The Heavenly Table has a strong, healthy cast of well-developed characters, sometimes to a fault. Support characters like Bovard and Jasper Cone had extensive moments that slowed the novel down and didn't add much value, for example. I would've definitely has a different appreciation of The Heavenly Table if it was shorter, but when dealing with Donald Ray Pollock, thoroughness comes with the territory.
One thing I particularly liked about The Heavenly Table is Donald Ray Pollock's Coen-ian dry wit. This novel is legit funny at all the wrong places and the humor always comes with a little bit of karma attached to it. To give you a quick example, there's a character dying from a heart attack while taking a dump at one point. Sure, it's a little fart humor-y but there's almost an entire chapter dedicated to the backlash of his death and this is where things get interesting. That passing is an allegory of the passing of the Jewett brothers' old existence. It died without ceremony and dignity, face down in the dirt like old America and puts them up against a difficult choice: if life as they knew it ceased just like that, what should they do now?
I can't blame The Heavenly Table for not lighting a fire under my ass like The Devil All The Time did, but here we are: I cannot review it without speaking of the terrible shadow cast by its predecessor. The Heavenly Table has its own merits. It's a compelling hybrid between an anachronistic Western, a depression-era novel and revisionist historical fiction. Add to that a bit of genuinely bleak and hilarious sense of humor and you have a pretty good book right there, right? If I'd judge The Heavenly Table by any other standards, I would've been more enthusiastic about it but I know Donald Ray Pollock has an extra gear he didn't use for this one and it murdered me.