To continue: I was absolutely gobsmacked by the first few stores in Donald Ray Pollock's collection "Knockemstiff." The first story, "Real Life," opens like this:
My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old. It was the only thing he was ever any good at.
Pow! Now THAT is a great pair of opening lines. They not only make you want to read the story, they make you want to read everything Donald Ray Pollock has written!
And, if you're a writer like me, it makes you want to give up writing. Why bother? Donald Ray Pollock has already done it better than you ever will.
The next story is great, too. But if the characters are anti-social in the first story, those in the second story are absolutely depraved. If they were real-life characters instead of fictional, a psychiatry student could write his or her dissertation on them.
It keeps going on. In every story, almost every character is on drugs or abuses alcohol or engaged in criminal acts or perverted - or a combination of the above. Only outsiders have any money. Everyone in the town of Knockemstiff is barely getting by or homeless.
Eventually, you realize that Pollock is painting with a limited palette. There's no joy in Knockemstiff. The closest to pleasure these characters experience is sex or the oblivion of drugs. It's like a genre without a name. Call it Literary Noir. (Most of the stories originally appeared in small literary journals, like Sou'wester or Third Coast or the Berkeley Fiction Review.)
And that realization is what got me out of my funk. Yes, Donald Ray Pollock is an amazing writer. Maybe I'll never be as good as he is. But he doesn't write humor, or travel, or about people who aren't one step away from destitution. I do. There's room for both of us in this world.