BY DAVID DUHR
Author: Donald Ray Pollock
Filed under: Literary
Early on in The Devil All the Time, Willard Russell tells his nine-year-old son Arvin that “They’s a lot of no-good sonafabitches out there.” When Arvin asks if there are more than one hundred, Willard chuckles and says, “Yeah, at least that many.”
Most of them can be found in this book. Any reader hoping that Donald Ray Pollock would branch out in his debut novel and leave behind the gloomy scum of Knockemstiff ought not to read even the very first line, which begins “On a dismal morning” and ends in “a long and rocky holler in southern Ohio called Knockemstiff.”
But for those of us who enjoyed Pollock’s story collection, The Devil All the Time is more—lots more—of the same degenerate goodness, revolving around characters who have been “born just so they could be buried.”
Here are a couple of people who merit killing and/or burying in the Ohio and West Virginia hollows of The Devil All the Time:
- A landlord who won’t turn off the heat
- A man who likes to hold down other men and pick the zits off their faces, then eat the pus (“Jesus, someone oughta kill a sonofabitch like that.”)
- A man who just looks like he “probably deserved killing”
- A man caught “messing with young girls”
- A woman who marries a man whose male cousin is in love with him (“He almost wished he had killed her himself. She had ruined everything.”)
And cats, of course, for being one man’s biggest fear (“He had slaughtered dozens of them over the years”).
Since we’re on lists, let’s make one of how some of the characters in Devil die: suicide by knife in front of a gory altar; gunshot; gunshot; gunshot; gunshot; suicide by hanging; gunshot; undefined malady likely having something to do with sitting under a tree in a wheelchair for weeks at a time without moving; and screwdriver to the neck by a husband who believes he has the power to resurrect the dead but after three hours of not bringing her back says “Jesus, I think I killed her.”
At least one character lives, so that’s nice.
I don’t want it to sound like I’m knocking this novel. I’m not. It’s an engaging, at times riveting read, full of death and decay and decadence, but also slivers of grace where you least expect them. But, like Knockemstiff, what attracts me the most is that Pollock delivers lots (and lots and lots) of gallows humor, most of it centering around killin’ and dyin’.
After witnessing his share of horrors in WWII, Willard Russell settles down in Knockemstiff. As his wife Charlotte succumbs to cancer, Willard and son Arvin build a “prayer log” upon which they pour the blood of roadkill as a sacrifice.
Over in nearby Meade, husband/wife team Sally and Carl Henderson go on annual murder sprees along the country’s back roads, picking up male hitchhikers (“models,” Carl calls them), luring them into the woods with promises of sexual favors from Sally, and then fulfilling those promises before killing the men and taking photos.
Meanwhile, things in Coal Creek, West Virginia are weird ever since a cousin team of preachers hit town. Theodore is wheelchair-bound after having proven his faith by drinking strychnine, but he still picks the guitar while his cousin Ray (with whom Theodore is very much in love) pours spiders over his own head to prove his faith. But when Ray’s wife is found murdered, the cousins split town.
Eventually a new preacher comes to Coal Creek and launches the series of events that will bring these people (“nearly all of them connected by blood,” Pollock writes, “through one godforsaken calamity or another”) together; climaxing, of course, in Pollock’s beloved/behated Knockemstiff.
As I read this twisted story, two things continually crossed my mind: 1) The cringing sensation of “Is what I think is about to happen really going to happen?” and 2) How the hell does Pollock manage to keep these people sympathetic? Somehow I found myself relating to a serial killer who takes daily photos of his dying mother to “record her long downward slide on film.” I ached for another man who, when finding his companion dead, cracks open a bottle and starts telling the dead man “the same stories over and over again”—even if he omits the one about killing his own wife. And I felt trapped myself when revisiting a storekeeper who eight years earlier had a simple dream of leaving Knockemstiff for the supposed glamour of Cincinnati, but who, when we meet him again, “a little more frazzled,” asks of a customer, “Hey, you ever been to Cincinnati?”
(This is the same man who gives a root beer to a boy who has just found his father dead, and when the boy says he doesn’t have money, answers, “That’s all right. You can owe me.”)
Pollock uses omniscient narration to allow us access to all of these people, and yes, we find them disgusting and depraved, and yes, we somehow manage to sympathize with most of them; but mostly we laugh at their feverish thought processes and debased existence. It’s a nervous laughter, though; the way you laugh at those episodes of Hoarders where people sleep in piles of their own shit. It’s a “There but for the grace of (who/whatever) go I” laughter.
Pollock knows this. He’s the kind of writer who tortures his characters to see how much they can take; and by extension, tortures us to see how much we can take. Most of these characters aren’t able to withstand a whole lot. The same might go for many readers. But if you’re not turned off by lots of blood and scatological humor, and you’re a fan of those movies where nearly everyone dies at the end, and you enjoyed the perversity of Knockemstiff and want to spend some more time in the Appalachian holler, The Devil All the Time will be a good fit.
Similar reads: Knockemstiff, by Donald Ray Pollock; Deliverance by James Dickey; Flannery O’Connor’s stories (and Wise Blood, kinda sorta)