Excerpt: The Devil All The Time

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November 1, 2011 by markstani

Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All The Time is published in the UK on Thursday. On its release date this blog will have three copies to give away, courtesy of the publishers, Harvill Secker. Scroll down for a full review. Tomorrow, read an interview with the author. In the meantime, here’s an exclusive extract.

The couple had been roaming the Midwest for several weeks during the summer of 1965, always on the hunt, two nobodies in a black Ford station wagon purchased for one hundred dollars at a used-car lot in Meade, Ohio, called Brother Whitey’s. It was the third vehicle they had gotten off the minister in as many years. The man on the passenger’s side was turning to fat and believed in signs and had a habit of picking his decayed teeth with a Buck pocketknife. The woman always drove and wore tight shorts and flimsy blouses that showed off her pale, bony body in a way they both thought enticing. She chain-smoked any kind of menthol cigarettes she could get her hands on while he chewed on cheap black cigars that he called dog dicks. The Ford burned oil and leaked brake fluid and threatened to spill its metal guts all over the highway anytime they pushed it past fifty miles an hour. The man liked to think it looked like a hearse, but the woman preferred limousine. Their names were Carl and Sandy Henderson, but sometimes they had other names, too.
Over the past four years, Carl had come to believe that hitchhikers were the best, and there were plenty of them on the road in those days. He called Sandy the bait, and she called him the shooter, and they both called the hitchhikers the models. That very evening, just north of Hannibal, Missouri, they had tricked and tortured and killed a young enlisted man in a wooded area thick with humidity and mosquitoes. As soon as they picked him up, the boy had kindly offered them sticks of Juicy Fruit, said he’d drive for a while if the lady needed a break. “That’ll be the goddamn day,” Carl said; and Sandy rolled her eyes at the snide tone her husband sometimes used, as if he thought he was a better class of trash than the stuff they found along the roads. Whenever he got like that, she just wanted to stop the car and tell the poor fool in the backseat to get out while he still had a chance. One of these days, she promised herself that was exactly what she was going to do, hit the brakes and knock Mister Big Shot down a notch or two.
But not tonight. The boy in the backseat was blessed with a face smooth as butter and tiny brown freckles and strawberry-colored hair, and Sandy could never resist the ones who looked like angels. ‘What’s your name, honey?’ she asked him, after they’d gone a mile or two down the highway. She made her voice nice and easy; and when the boy looked up and their eyes met in the rearview mirror, she winked and gave him the smile that Carl had taught her, the one he’d made her practice night after night at the kitchen table until her face was ready to fall off and stick to the floor like a pie crust, a smile that hinted at every dirty possibility a young man could ever imagine.
‘Private Gary Matthew Bryson,’ the boy said. It sounded odd to her, him saying his full name like that, like he was up for inspection or some such shit, but she ignored it and went right on talking. She hoped he wasn’t going to be the serious type. Those kinds always made her part of the job that much harder.
‘Now that’s a nice name,’ Sandy said. In the mirror, she watched as a shy grin spread over his face, saw him stick a fresh piece of gum in his mouth. ‘Which of them you go by?’ she asked.
‘Gary,’ he said, flipping the silver gum wrapper out the window. ‘That was my daddy’s name.’
‘That other one, Matthew, that one’s from the Bible, ain’t it, Carl?’ Sandy said.
‘Hell, everything’s from the Bible,’ her husband said, staring out the windshield. ‘Ol’ Matt, he was one of the apostles.’
‘Carl used to teach Sunday school, didn’t you, baby?’
With a sigh, Carl twisted his big body around in the seat, more to take another look at the boy than anything else. ‘That’s right,’ he said with a tight-lipped smile. ‘I used to teach Sunday school.’ Sandy patted his knee, and he turned back around without another word and pulled a road map from the glove box.
‘You probably already knew that, though, didn’t you, Gary?’ Sandy said. ‘That your middle name is right out of the Good Book?’
The boy quit chomping his gum for a moment. ‘We never went to church much when I was a kid,’ he said.
A worried look swept across Sandy’s face, and she reached for her cigarettes on the dash. ‘But you been baptized, right?’ she asked.
‘Well, sure, we ain’t complete heathens,’ the boy said. ‘I just don’t know any of that Bible stuff.’
‘That’s good,’ Sandy said, a hint of relief in her voice. ‘No sense takin’ chances, not with something like that. Lord, who knows where a person might end up if he wasn’t saved?’
The soldier was going home to see his mother before the army shipped him off to Germany or that new place called Vietnam, Carl couldn’t recall which now. He didn’t give a damn if he was named after some crazy sonofabitch in the New Testament, or that his girlfriend had made him promise to wear her class ring around his neck until he returned from overseas. Knowing stuff like that only complicated things later on; and so Carl found it easier to ignore the small talk, let Sandy handle all the dumb questions, the pitter-patter bullshit. She was good at it, flirting and flapping her jaws, putting them at ease. They had both come a long way since they’d first met, her, a lonely scrawny stick of a girl waiting tables at the Wooden Spoon in Meade, eighteen years old and taking shit off customers in hopes of a quarter tip. And him? Not much better, a flabby-faced mama’s boy who had just lost his mother, with no future or friends except for what a camera might bring. He’d had no idea, as he walked into the Wooden Spoon that first night away from home, of what that meant or what to do next. The only thing he had known for sure, as he sat in the booth watching the skinny waitress finish wiping the tables off before turning out the lights, was that he needed, more than anything else in the world, to take her picture. They had been together ever since.
Of course, there were also things that Carl needed to say to the hitchhikers, but that could usually wait until after they had parked the car. ‘Take a look at this,’ he’d begin, when he pulled the camera out of the glove box, a Leica M3 35mm, and held it up for the man to see. ‘Cost four hundred new, but I got it for damn near nothing.’ And though the sexy smile never left Sandy’s lips, she couldn’t help but feel a little bitter every time he bragged about it. She didn’t know why she had followed Carl into this life, wouldn’t even try to put such a thing into mere words, but she did know that that damn camera had never been a bargain, that it was going to cost them plenty in the end. Then she’d hear him ask the next model, in a voice that sounded almost like he was joking, ‘So, how would you like to have your picture took with a good-looking woman?’ Even after all this time, it still amazed her that grown-up men could be so easy.


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