Donald Ray Pollock’s debut novel The Devil All the Time is an exploration of about twenty years (the middle 1940s through the middle 1960s) in the lives of mostly marginal people in rural Ohio and West Virginia. It is a character driven tale of violence and loyalty that contains many master strokes of the Southern Gothic sub-genre; however its appeal is broader than just for fans of that peculiar form.
The book opens with a prologue that has the main character, Alvin Russell, following his almost unhinged father, Willard, to a log-altar where they perform blood sacrifices like the old religion while praying to the Jesus of the new religion to spare the beloved mother, Charlotte. Willard is a man made violent by surviving such vicious battles in the Pacific like the fight for and on Tarawa. That said, his predictable retreat to alcohol and physical violence does not leave him truly impetuous. His violence is always directed at something a neutral observer would consider a slight; however, the level of brutality he brings to the one who slighted him is beyond all reason. Another example of the extreme behavior is how rococo his private religion becomes as Charlotte’s illness continues to worsen. Whether Willard’s treatment of Arvin in this situation counts as abuse is an open question and one of the reasons the novel is so powerful. As Charlotte gets sicker, there is more and more pressure on the boy to pray harder which leaves him no time for a social life and even begins to limit his time at school. Until love becomes a flailing desperation, it’s difficult to fault Willard’s behavior given what he understands of the world.
Things change dramatically when Arvin is orphaned and is forced to leave Knockemstiff Hollow, OH for Coal Creek, WV to live with his great uncle Earskell, paternal grandmother Emma, and Lenora, a orphaned girl whose parents “disappeared” several years before. Undeniably a motley mix, Arvin finds an unaccustomed stability with the poor, elderly relatives and fellow orphan.
In as much as there is a main story, Arvin’s orphanhood, “adoption,” and big brother protection of the homely, vulnerable Lenora is it. But there are four storylines that intersect each other and often cross into the main line. In no particular order: a pair of itinerant preachers, Roy and Theo, are chased out of even the fringe ministry for suspected homosexual behavior then become carneys only to be chased out of even that marginal group for the same suspicion; seasonal serial killers, Carl and Sandy, whose victims are hitchhikers but whose signature I will leave out so as not to spoil it; Sandy’s corrupt brother, Lee Bodeker, who is sheriff and his exploits; and the corrupt and lecherous preacher, Preston Teagardin, who takes over more than just the pulpit of the church Arvin, Emma, and Lenora attend. The Southern Gothic I mentioned in the opening appear most often in the stories of the preacher-carneys and the serial killers, which is only natural given the genre.
Each story contains a level of violence that would be odd if the characters were not already fringe/marginal. In this, Pollock I think picked up a thread that Cormac McCarthy also uses to tell particularly his Tennessee tales. I argue that some of the violence rises to brutality based on the circumstance but the violence overall is not gratuitous given the context for one and the artful language for another. For those familiar with McCarthy’s work, I do not believe I exaggerate when I say The Devil All the Time is the novel the horrific Child of God should have been.
Some general warnings. The novel is written in vignettes and is not strictly linear. Each story is easy enough to keep straight despite the interweaving, but if this style is something you find to be a chore or distracting, then the novel will likely frustrate more than not. The language is also often coarse; while this fits the nature of the characters, if it is something that offends then the novel will offend almost from the start.
My only complaint … it could have been twice as long and I would still probably want more.