by Donald Ray Pollock
(Doubleday) $22.95.

For quite some time, Harry Crews wrote nasty novels—The Gospel Singer, A Feast of Snakes—about Florida and the South. The amoral bodybuilders that tended to be protagonists of his stories did drugs, fornicated, and committed heinous acts of violence like it was their biological imperative. The characters in Knockemstiff could be their Ohioan kissing cousins.

Pollock's debut collection of linked stories takes place in the very real town of Knockemstiff, Ohio (Pollock's hometown), and some of the drug abuse (huffing Bactine, taking fistfuls of unidentified pills) and lawlessness (burglary, abuse, car theft) is based on real events. Pollock doesn't quite have Crews's pitch-perfect cadence and snaky prose, but he has a real, solid talent, and an ability to write about poor small-town residents (without making them either saints or reptiles) that diminishes most debut authors by association.

The language is relentless: "He coughed and spit a gob of thick poisonous snot"; "I listen to my son try to swallow his tongue and go over the whole fucking mess for the thousandth time"; "Dropping to his knees, he grabbed the man's glasses and snapped them in two, beat him in the face until a tooth popped through one meaty cheek." But there's a dirty gorgeousness under all the smear and soot, and from the ugly dignity of "Assailants" to the elegy of "Honolulu," this book doesn't wander into the darkness just to be a tourist. It begins in darkness and remains there, to stay, because it feels comfortable.

Paul Constant interviews Donald Ray Pollock on working in a paper mill for decades, learning how to write by retyping Hemingway stories, and the alluring quality of luncheon meat here.