"'Why, one day you'll get to eat at the heavenly table,' the man said. 'Won't be no scrounging for scraps after...

Book Review: The Heavenly Table, Donald Ray Pollock

"'Why, one day you'll get to eat at the heavenly table,' the man said. 'Won't be no scrounging for scraps after that, I guarantee ye.'"

I have friends (no, really!) who joke that I buy them books not because I think they'll like them, but purely because I liked them, so I spend my life forcing the things I love onto the people around me, forever trying to mould them into little clones of myself.

They're absolutely right, of course, and one of the books I've forced on a lot of people over the years since I read it is Donald Ray Pollock's first novel, The Devil All The Time. Unfortunately, I have a terrible memory, so although I know I really enjoyed it, I can't remember the story. I only remember that I loved the darkness, and I thought it was incredibly well written. So, opening The Heavenly Table for the first time, I knew that I loved Donald Ray Pollock, I just couldn't remember exactly why.

Well, I've been reminded now.

The Heavenly Table follows brothers Cob, Cane and Chimney as they leave their hard life of poverty and backbreaking work in search of riches and infamy, robbing banks and living as outlaws inspired by a tattered old book that only one of them can read. In their run from the law, they cross paths with several other characters from all walks of life - from pure evil to comically ridiculous - and, obviously, everyone learns a little bit about themselves and what it means to be human.

The writing is sharp, clear and always engaging. Pollock has an excellent sense of humour and a great way of not only imagining a wide variety of different characters, but also introducing them to the reader in a way that doesn't feel out of place or unbelievable. There isn't a chapter that makes you want to close the book and move on, not a single point where you feel bored.

The only problem with the writing, if one is following the rules of good fiction writing to the letter, is that in The Heavenly Table, Pollock has completely forgotten the "show, don't tell" rule. Or, perhaps because he's so good, he just thinks it doesn't apply to him. I felt like almost everything that happened in the book was told to me, recounted as a set of events, rather than shown to me through description and subtlety. We never see the boys rob a bank, for instance; we just get told that they have. And yet, I didn't feel - as we're told a reader should when faced with such writing - insulted, or patronised. I didn't feel less engaged, because I hadn't had to do half the work myself. Perhaps this is because there is so much content, so many characters and ideas, or maybe it's because of the quality of the writing or the story. Whatever it is, Pollock is right - he is too good to follow the rules.

Writing theory aside, this is a very good novel. Enjoyable throughout and filled with just the kind of writing that makes me happy - as dark and heartless as the world in which it is set, but laced with the same kinds of humour and empathy that get any sane person through the day. I'm not about to go around saying this was my favourite book ever, but if you're a friend or family member of mine, I'd advise you not to buy it for yourself, so that you don't ruin your next Christmas or birthday present.


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