And so it is. “The Heavenly Table” takes place in 1917 as the United States is finally entering the war. As the story opens Pearl Jewett and his three sons, Cane, Cob, and Chimney, are eking out an existence as sharecroppers along the border of Georgia and Alabama. Times had been tough before Pearl’s wife died. After that they had little but hopes left and not very many of those.
The Jewett boys had one treasure though, a tattered dime store novel called “The Life and Times of Bloody Bill Bucket.” Cane, the oldest son, was the only one who could read. He entertains his brothers by reading the book to them. When their father suddenly dies the brothers are seized by an inspiration, they agree to emulate the exploits of their fictional hero Bill Bucket and become outlaws.
The Jewett Brothers transform themselves into legendary fugitives as they make their way slowly north to Ohio. Early chapters alternate between the adventures of the Jewetts and the story of an Ohio farm family, the Fiddlers, who are dealing with their own painful circumstances.
Pollock continues to braid ever more eccentric characters into his blazing tapestry. There’s an angry bartender who might be a serial killer. Pollock seems to have a thing for serial killers. There’s a military officer who is living a secret life as a sexual decadent. The most fabulous character of all is a white bird. This creature defies death, destroys doubt, and brings a faint flutter of hope to this chaos strewn canvas.
Last week the author told me that he had wanted to write “a yarn.” Yarns are funny. “The Heavenly Table” disgorges a smorgasbord of horrors yet this reviewer could not stop laughing. Agony can be hilarious. This book is Donald Ray Pollock’s masterpiece.