Review: The Devil All The Time

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August 2, 2011 by markstani

Sure, it’s one of the dirtiest, grimiest books you’ll read. Its first fifty pages come complete with two human sacrifices, a beating so savage its victim “sits around with a coffee can hanging from his neck to catch his slobbers”, and crucifixes dripping with roadkill maggots. And that’s before the serial killers get started. Details magazine listed the book’s Five Most Disturbing Passages. That old warning to readers of a sensitive disposition may hold true more than ever. But author Donald Ray Pollock paints so rich a picture of this rural Armageddon that the shocks never seem gratuitous. Indeed, focusing only on the depth of the dirt does this book a disservice. Instead, Pollock’s sharp, kinetic prose will likely leave you cheering his crazy cast of characters on.
If you liked Pollock’s debut short story collection, Knockemstiff, you’ll love The Devil All The Time. In many respects – all good – it’s Knockemstiff: The Novel. Part of the story is set back in the dark Ohio holler where nothing much has changed: “Four hundred or so people lived in Knockemstiff in 1957, nearly all of them connected by blood through one godforsaken calamity or another, be it lust or necessity or just plain ignorance.”
Pollock’s pitch-dark short stories shook up the literary world, and early reviews of The Devil All The Time suggest it will do the same. Spanning a couple of decades from the end of the Second World War, its bunch of plot strands include a serial killer couple, Carl and Sandy Henderson, who trawl the South in a beat-up old wagon – “the man liked to think it looked like a hearse, but the woman preferred limousine” – seeking out horny young hitch-hikers to fuck (there really is no point in putting it any nicer), kill and photo. There’s a pair of fire-and-brimstone preachers, one of whom lost his legs glugging back poison to prove his faith in the Lord. There’s a corrupt County Sheriff, no end of knocked-up ex-virgins, and there’s Willard Russell, pouring sacrificial blood on his ‘prayer log’ in a vain attempt to stop his wife Charlotte’s slow death by cancer. At the centre of it all, there’s the Russells’ son Arvin, trying to make sense of the crazy, bleak world he’s being raised in.
The real genius of Pollock’s book is that through the maggots-and-all of his characters’ daily existence, the grime never feels forced. It’s a necessary, vivid part of each plot strand (they come together in one of the finest last lines you’ll read). Nor is Pollock tempted to patronize such down-at-heel folk. He grew up in the real-life Knockemstiff and slogged in a paper mill for thirty years. There’s no doubt he knows what makes them tick. Hank Bell, marooned in Maude’s store since the ‘Knockemstiff’ days, listens to kids whooping at cars on the concrete bridge and still dreams of getting out as far as Cincinnati.
“A few of them hung there almost every night, regardless of the weather. Poor as snakes, every one of them. All they desired out of life was a car that would run and a hot piece of ass. He thought that sounded nice in a way, just going through your entire life with no more expectations than that. Sometimes he wished he weren’t so ambitious.”
In a recent interview, Pollock described his book’s genre as “gothic hillbilly noir”. He may have been half-joking, but you couldn’t put it better. He’s the best example of a rich literary seam doing what Hank Bell never will, and spreading out of Appalachia. The more that follow, the better. The Devil All The Time confirms Pollock as one of the brightest new leaders in American fiction.

The Devil All The Time is published in the US by Doubleday. It will be published in the UK on November 3 by Harvill Secker. You can read my interview with Donald Ray Pollock here.

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