‘The Devil All the Time,’ by Donald Ray Pollock
By Robert Goolrick,
You’ll want to lock your doors. Donald Ray Pollock’s first novel, after an acclaimed book of short stories, is pretty much what the title predicts: a literary tsunami of pure evil. The people who live in what he called in his earlier collection “this little patch of God’s wicked earth” aren’t just bad people, they’re the devil all the time.
The book is grotesque, violent, haunting, perverse and harrowing — and very good. You may be repelled, you may be shocked, you will almost certainly be horrified, but you will read every last word.
Pollock sets his book in the backwaters of the rural Midwest, beginning in a town called Knockemstiff, Ohio — a real town, by the way, if withered away to nothing now — where the author was born. It’s a place, Pollock says early on, inhabited by about 400 people, “nearly all of them connected by blood through one godforsaken calamity or another, be it lust or necessity or just plain ignorance.” Godforsaken is the key word here; these citizens have by and large abandoned any hope of redemption, and primal blood lust is in full command of their actions. They may scream for Jesus, but it’s the devil who takes their hand time and time again.
Willard Russell, whose wife is dying of cancer, builds a prayer log in a quiet grove decorated with decaying bones where he prays incessantly with his young son, Arvin. Deciding prayer isn’t enough to save her, he begins a series of blood sacrifices, first with forest animals, then household pets and, finally, his landlord, a drunk lawyer whom Willard kills with a hammer. His wife, of course, dies anyway, and so Willard makes the ultimate sacrifice.
Next we meet Carl and Sandy, an unemployed photographer and his whoring bartender wife. They live in squalor, as does almost everybody in this novel, but they save up the quarters and dimes Sandy gets as tips so that they can spend two or three weeks on the road every summer picking up hitchhikers whom they sexually abuse, mutilate and kill while Carl snaps pictures. When we meet them, they have killed 24 young men. At vacation’s end, they can go back to their derelict lives: Sandy pouring drinks and whoring herself out for $20; Carl sitting at home, pawing through a shoe box of pictures of young men in various stages of agony and dismemberment.
The story’s relentless trail of blood spans from 1945 to the ’60s. If there is a hero here, it is Arvin, the boy who prayed so hard with his father to stave off his mother’s death. By book’s end, he has shot four people with his father’s Luger. We last see Arvin, in his teens, as he emerges from the woods onto the highway, looking for a ride that will take him anywhere. Anywhere but here.
I’m leaving out Roy and Theodore, guitar-strumming, bug-eating evangelists and — do I have to say it? — killers. And Lee, the crooked sheriff and hit man. But you get the picture. In this novel, you get the picture from the first page, and it doesn’t get any prettier.
The book practically screams out, “Quentin Tarantino , make me into a movie !” and the dust jacket compares Pollack glowingly to Flannery O’Connor. Of course, if the work is grotesque, and there’s blood, and Jesus is mentioned occasionally, almost any writer will earn comparisons to that master of the violent, redneck, religious gothic novel.
But in Pollock’s case, there is, I think, a more apt precedent: Jim Thompson, the boozy but prolific Texas writer of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s who gave pulp fiction a style the intelligentsia could embrace in novels such as “The Killer Inside Me,” “Pop. 1280” and “The Grifters.”
Pollock is a brilliant stylist and, having worked in a paper mill in Chillicothe, Ohio, for three decades, he brings the credibility of a hard life to this fascinating but unnuanced tale. He knows the evil that people who don’t live there think resides in the minds of small-town America. Pollock rubs our faces in the Grand Guignol hillbilly myth, and because his writing is so clear and concise, we roll around in the gore until he sets us free, to stand by the side of the road, blood on our hands, waiting for a ride to anywhere but here.
Goolrick’s most recent book is “The Reliable Wife.”
THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME By Donald Ray Pollock Doubleday. 261 pp. $26.95