The Heavenly Table

Written by Donald Ray Pollock
Review by Jo Ann Butler

The Jewett family is grasping at existence as Southern sharecroppers in 1917 when their patriarch drops dead. With their mother long gone, Cane, Cob, and Chimney (named for remarkable circumstances in their father’s hardscrabble life) are on their own. They’re aged 23 to 18, but only Cane, the eldest of the trio, can read, so they take inspiration from Bloody Bill Bucket, a Confederate soldier turned bank robber in a dime novel. It might be their only path to riches and the Heavenly Table their father dreamed of: eternally overflowing with steaks the size of wagon wheels and hot buttered biscuits. The Jewett Gang kills their landlord, steals his horses and guns, and quickly become infamous.

Far to their north, Ellsworth Fiddler ekes out nearly as tenuous an existence as an Ohio farmer. His only son disappears, perhaps to the nearby army camp, and Fiddler loses the family’s savings to a swindler, leaving him to search blindly for revenge, and for his son.

Who can bring these far-flung characters, plus two-score thugs, soiled doves, and colorful skimwits face to face? It’s the award-winning Donald Ray Pollock, in The Heavenly Table. Pollock creates the most hapless gang since Fargo’s kidnappers and hurls them northward, scattering mindless mayhem in their wake. I missed the leavening of Fargo’s warm-hearted police chief, but even The Heavenly Table ends with a note of redemption. If you like rural mayhem and black comedy, take a seat at Mr. Pollock’s Table and prepare for a feast.