The Heavenly Table ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock is set in the year 1917. Three brothers—Cane, Cob and Chimney Jewett—are dirt poor. They live in a shack with a dirt floor and barely have enough food to eat to go on living. Cane, at twenty-one is the oldest, the most sensible of the three and the only one who might be considered handsome (if he could get himself clean). The middle brother is Cob, who is fat and a simpleton. The youngest brother, Chimney, is only seventeen. He’s reckless, impulsive, foul-mouthed and obsessed with sex. When the Jewett brothers’ father, Pearl, dies suddenly one day during his labors, the three boys decide their life is going to be different from that moment on. They kill Mr. Tardweller, the landowner for whom they work for pennies, and after they’ve done that, they go on a spree robbing banks.
Of course, a life of crime requires keeping on the move. As the Jewetts move around, being pursued, of course, by law enforcement officials, they develop a reputation that is bigger than they are. Crimes that they never dreamed of committing are attributed to them. They become, in a way, folk heroes among a downtrodden people who believe the little man will never get a break in life. And, as bad as the Jewett boys are, they really aren’t all that bad. As they immerse themselves in a life of crime, we begin to see little pieces of their decency, even from Chimney, the roughest of the three. They want to make it to Canada, where they believe they can live a peaceful life and eventually partake of the Heavenly Table with the money they have stolen. You and I know, though, that criminals, after committing violent crimes, rarely have their fondest wishes realized.
There is a host of secondary characters in The Heavenly Table. Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler are a poor farm couple whose no-account son, Eddie, causes them plenty of heartache. They believe that Eddie has gone off to fight in the Great War, until they learn what really happened to him. Lieutenant Bovard is an officer in an Ohio army camp where men are being prepared to fight. He is self-loathing because he is secretly a homosexual. He longs to die on the front in the war with a handsome young recruit by his side named Frank Waller. Jasper Cone is a much-maligned outhouse inspector in the little town of Meade, Ohio. His job is to go around the town checking the level in outhouses to make sure they are not in danger of overflowing. A young black man named Sugar lives off a woman in Detroit until she takes up with a younger man and kicks Sugar out of the house. Homeless, Sugar is penniless and mean. He begins rambling to find his way in the world (another woman to support him?). Eventually the paths of all these characters intersect.
The Heavenly Table is full of dark humor and violence. Despite its gothic tone, it is breezy, one might almost say, light, reading. It’s full of folksy anecdotes about things that happened in people’s lives to make them what they are. It’s set in a much quainter, simpler time (1917), and its evocation of that time makes us feel we’re there. Imagine every house in town having an outhouse, while the city council is putting out calls for indoor plumbing. Imagine having a “Whore Barn” on the edge of your town that caters mostly to young soldiers at the nearby training camp, while the “clap doctor” is railing at them about the dangers of venereal disease. Imagine trying to get a 1917 car going and running while you tool around the countryside. The next thing you know, they’ll be converting the livery stable into an auto repair shop.
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp