The Devil All The Time by Donald Ray Pollock

The Devil All the Time does its best to live up to its title. The novel chronicles the fantastically violent lives of the residents of the hills and hollers along the border of Ohio and West Virginia. In the prologue, Willard Russell takes his nine-year-old son, Arvin Eugene Russell, out to a “prayer log” to which Willard, when he is sober, goes to pray. Willard, you see, believes it is wrong to talk to god while drunk. While kneeling and praying in this somewhat remote and wooded area, the father and son are mocked by passing hunters. Willard is not a gentle man, but he lets the men walk away while he and Arvin continue to silently pray.

While fanatically religious, Willard is not a “turn the other cheek” sort of man. The taunting has put him in a bad mood which Charlotte, his wife, notices. A few hours after Willard and Arvin return home, Willard concocts an errand for which he needs to go to town. He takes Arvin along.

While riding through town, Willard spots the men.

With the truck still rolling to a stop, Willard pushed the door open and leaped out. One of the hunters stood up and threw a bottle that glanced off the truck’s windshield and landed with a clatter in the road. Then the man turned and started running, his filthy coat flapping behind him and his bloodshot eyes looking around wildly as the big man chased him. Willard caught up and shoved him down into the greasy slop pooled in front of the outhouse door. Rolling him over, he pinned the man’s skinny shoulders with his knees and began pounding his bearded face with his fists.

The other hunter grabs his gun and runs, leaving his buddy to get pummeled. When Willard returns to the truck, he imparts a lesson to Arvin.

”You remember what I told you the other day?” he asked Arvin.

“About them boys on the bus?”

“Well, that’s what I meant,” Willard said, nodding over at the hunter. He tossed the rag out the window. “You just got to pick the right time.”

“Yes, sir,” Arvin said.

“They’s a lot of no-good sonofabitches out there.”

“More than a hundred?”

Willard laguhed a little and put the truck in gear. “Yeah, at least that many.”

Arvin remembers the day as one of the best that he ever spent with his father.

The novel proper starts before the prologue. Willard is a World War II veteran who has seen the worst of war and is heading home. At a diner not far from his hometown, he sees a beautiful young woman, Charlotte Willoughby, and decides he will marry her. He does. They have a child, Arvin.

A decade later, Arvin is ten years old and Charlotte has been recently diagnosed with cancer. Willard begins sacrificing animals in an effort to appease god and cure his wife. He forces Arvin to join him at the prayer log which will soon be surrounded by animal corpses. As Charlotte declines, Willard becomes more and more desperate. Picking up every animal he can find and making Arvin pray his voice hoarse. The slow decline of Charlotte, his mother, and his father Willard’s response to it marks Arvin for the remainder of his life. Soon after Charlotte dies, Arvin is sent to live with his grandmother Emma in Coal Creek, West Virginia.

Most of the characters who play a central role in the book are from Coal Creek, Willard’s original hometown and the town in which Arvin grows up. Among them, there are two guest preachers, Roy Laferty and Theodore Daniels. Roy, between the two, the charismatic one and impresses church-goers by dumping a jar full of spiders over his head during his and Theodore’s antics-laden performances at church. His faith, he tells the parishioners, helped him overcome his fear of spiders and faith can work similar wonders for them. Theodore is wheelchair bound due to his efforts to prove his devotion to Jesus by drinking poison. Roy is an uncomfortable mixture of shyster and true believer. His actions and belief are never reconciled sufficiently to make either convincing. Theodore’s cynicism, in contrast, feels genuine. Eventually, the two must flee Coal Creek.

Carl Henderson is a photographer who considers himself the equal of Michaelangelo and Leonardo what’s-his-name. Like Roy, he finds temporary happiness in the arms of an underage girl. He marries Sandy, the sister of the local sheriff, Lee Bodecker. Lee is crooked and Carl is shiftless. Both men are pleased by the arrangement. Lee is relieved of responsibility for Sandy and Carl has a wife who keeps him housed and fed by waitressing and hooking. In the summers, Sandy and Carl take vacations during which they, In Cold Blood-style, pick up hitchhikers and kill them for funds and pleasure. Carl, the artiste, documents the killings.

These and other side stories are told by Pollock in a roving third-person that is not always smooth. Sometimes the author drifts awkwardly between the perspectives of multiple characters in a single paragraph. In Pollock’s hands, the omniscience provides too much information. The foreshadowing is heavy-handed both with respect to plot details and tippping off the reader very early that every narrative strand will, at some point, crash (or Crash) into the others. Readers typically have a sense that everything in a novel somehow belongs, but The Devil All the Time and its characters’ actions often felt contrived.

Aside from the fact that Pollock uses the trope of serial killers, only employs male characters who (by the end of the book, almost to a man) have killed, and (except for Grandma Emma and saintly Charlotte) only employs female charactes whose greatest pleasure is dropping their panties for fat slobs, the book is reasonably well-written.

One of my pet peeves in fiction is the neon sign some authors hang around a character’s neck that says “Good Guy” with, in case it is not clear, an arrow pointing to that character. Consider Arvin:

”In this house, you better know how to handle a gun unless you want to starve to death,” the old man had told [Arvin upon giving him his deceased father’s gun.]

“But I don’t want to shoot anything,” Arvin said that day, when Earskell stopped and pointed out two gray squirrels jumping back and forth on some branches high in a hickory tree.

Earskill, Arvin’s great-uncle, bags the squirrels on that outing, but convinces Arvin that hunting for meat is no worse than “eatin’ a pork chop.” Quickly understanding how the world works, Arvin becomes a gifted marksman, usually bringing home squirrels with a neat bullet hole in the head to avoid spoiling any meat. (Adept with fists and guns, he is also the most physically attractive male in the book and has a soft but stern heart. If this is not enough, the inside front flap assures us that he “grows up to be a good but also violent man in his own right”.)

Another reason Pollock does not get higher marks for his writing is his carelessness with words.

A man needed to be sincere with the Master at all times in case he was ever really in need. Even Willard’s father, Tom Russell, a moonshiner who’d been hounded by bad luck and trouble right up to the day he died of a diseased liver in a Parkersburg jail, ascribed to that belief.

Ascribed? Actually, Willard subscribed to that belief.

This is, apparently, Pollock’s debut novel, but second book. His first book was a collection of short stories titled Knockemstiff, the name of the holler where Willard and Arvin pray to an unhearing god. Both the back cover of The Devil All the Time and the book description at Amazon.com invoke Flannery O’Connor. Any debt to O’Connor, though, would be for perverting her literary seriousness for use in violent male fantasies. He has taken the idea of outlandish southern characters obsessed with religion and used it as the window dressing for a display of human depravity.

That does not get Pollock to the seriousness his blurbers so crave for him, however. O’Connor’s theme was religion. She wove it skillfully into her stories to explore theological and/or philosphical ideas. Pollock, on the other hand, seems most concerned with the amount of blood and sex that he can fit into his page-turner. His nod to transformation at the conclusion is little more than that and not at all convincing. As you can probably tell, I found the book primarily offensive.

My point is not that books featuring serial killers are offensive. In Cold Blood has violence and a point. Nor is it that wanton and depraved sex as a central element of a narrative destroys the integrity of a novel. The Story of the Eye contains sex scenes as disturbing and more graphic than anything in The Devil All the Time, but, as an example of transgressive fiction, Bataille’s work has a philosophical point. Neither Capote’s nor Bataille’s works were merely pornographic, Pollock’s is.

The Devil All the Time has no elevating features. Its characters are not misfits struggling against societal constraints or religion. These are characters, overtly “good” or “bad”, who serve primarily as vehicles for scenes involving either sex or violence, and often sex and violence together. The book does not work as a commentary on religion, because only the trappings of religion are ever conveyed. At best, religion is sneered at. Neither is the novel much of a commentary on violence. The ending suggests Pollock had a moral in mind, but the burying of the gun makes little sense in the context of the story. It rings doubly false. As a plot point, it is nonsensical; as metaphorical moralizing, it either undercuts or is undercut by all the blood and semen that has gone before. Far from redeeming the novel, the ending only demonstrates how shallow and debased the novel actually is.

As for its prospects in the Tournament of Books 2012, it has none. Feel free to ink-in now The Sense of an Ending as the winner in the Barnes vs. Pollock first-round matchup. Fittingly, The Devil All the Time will be sacrificed early and in a grisly manner.

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16 Responses to The Devil All The Time by Donald Ray Pollock

  1. Brooks says:

    Regarding its standing in the ToB, I definitely agree, but as for it’s merits as a novel, I think I disagree.

    There’s something to be said for Pollock’s ability to find and convey a sense of place and to create a cohesive world around it.

    I have a problem with nihilism in novels and when I was reading The Devil All The Time, I was on guard for it. But nihilism is Chuck Palahniuk territory, where the evil deeds are done for shock value and the characters always seem be empty vessels that exist only to to and say awful things. I didn’t find this to be the case with Pollock.

    I felt like Pollock was building these monsters so that when they went down, there was a sense of relief that one more monster had been excised from the world. And in his own way, I think Pollock tried to make each of them more three dimensional. I think he succeeded with some characters more than others.

    Since finishing the novel a few days ago, I’ve been thinking about the nature of monsters and the devil within us all. And I think that was the point of the novel, really. What are the devils inside of us and how can we, as humans, live with ourselves?

    Even though I don’t entirely agree with your analysis , I still enjoyed it quite a bit. Thanks!

    • Kerry says:

      Brooks,

      Thank you very much for taking the time to share your thoughts.

      I have not read anything by Palahniuk, not least because he does not seem to be the type of writer I would like. Your description makes me think I made the right decision.

      I am glad you’ve provided a different perspective. I just felt abused at the end of the novel, including by the ending. I see what you are saying about the catharsis. I suppose the characters just never felt sufficiently real to me….and too clearly created as archetypes of evil that needed to be (and clearly would be) dispatched.

      Certainly, you are asking interesting questions of yourself and that is the mark of a good book. Perhaps I should explore further why I have such a strongly negative reaction to a book other book-loving people like (TOB selection, NY Times 100 Notables list, you, etc.). At any rate, thank you very much for taking the time to share your contrasting opinion and perspective. You’ve made the book more worthwhile to me by challenging my interpretation. Thank you.

  2. Wilson Knut says:

    I was a little more lenient in my brief write up. I gave Pollock the benefit of the doubt in terms of his meaning and theme. He is heavy handed, but I think that is at least partially due to the type of book this is. It hovers somewhere between literary and escapist fiction (I say that at the risk of sounding snobbish). I think he wanted to write a page turner, and that heavy handedness is typical. Despite that, I think he is also a good writer and had some deeper meaning he was trying to convey. He wants to be compared to Flannery O’Connor, but he’s not there yet.

    Some people commented on your The Sense of An Ending post about how generational differences play into people’s responses to books. I think this is a book where generational differences will make a huge difference in how it is received. I’m in my late thirties. I found some redeeming qualities in the writing, but like you, the details were too much for me. I know some of my former students would find the book very meaningful, and The Sense of An Ending wouldn’t mean anything to them.

    Like Brooks’ mentions in the previous comment, I found myself thinking about the theme afterwards; whereas, I didn’t think much about The Sense of An Ending after reading it. That being said, The Devil All the Time still doesn’t have a chance in the Tournament of Books.

    • Kerry says:

      Wilson,

      Thank you, too, for a (sort of) dissent. With the O’Connor references in the publicity for the book, I approached it as “serious” literature. If looked at simply as an escapist, page-turner, it does succeed if you like to escape into that sort of world and page-turners turn you on. You’ve probably been much more fair to the book in recognizing what it is rather than treating it as what its publicists claim it is.

      The generational thing probably does come into play, at least as far as my appreciation of the book as escapism.

      I do recommend people that are interested to read your comparison of this and The Sense of an Ending. It is very interesting and provocative. I enjoyed Barnes’ work more than you did and this one less, so yours is a more tempered evaluation. After checking the Tumblr feed of Ms. Straub to which you link, I am (if possible) more certain of the outcome.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Thanks for this review — I’ll be giving this novel a pass. I think Brooks and Wilson’s comments are a good indication that this type of book may have appeal to some (and did at least partially land with them) while have virtually no attraction to others (I’d put myself in your camp there).

    • Kerry says:

      Kevin,

      You were probably near the top of my list of people who I would warn away from this one. I do not believe it is worth your time. It will be gone from the TOB quickly, so even that reason is only a fleeting one.

      Thanks, as always, for the comment.

  4. Alice Under says:

    I read this only for the ToB–because I had already read half of the books when the list came out I went ahead and scooped up the rest because I am either OCD or a laudable completionist–and, save for the Murakami, it’s the one I most wish I had not read. I found nothing redeeming in it. You really capture very well the problem I had: it has no theme, no purpose; it never seemed to me to be working at a deeper or more elevated level. It’s not that I’m squeamish, exactly; I’ve read plenty of violent and dark books. I just want there to be a reason for the pain and discomfort of being exposed to such violence, some sort of philosophical or moral conversation that takes place within it.

    I’m also quite pleased that you comment on the inconsistency of the omniscient narration. I honestly can’t remember the last time I encountered clumsier transitions between one character’s head and another. I’ve long since sent this one out of the house so I don’t have a physical copy to reference but I scoffed and laughed out loud at some of the paragraph transitions. I know this is only his second book but surely it’s just common sense not to signify the leap from one character’s consciousness to another with sentences like, “Sandy didn’t realize it, but what Carl was actually thinking was _____”. Just awful writing.

    • Kerry says:

      Alice,

      While I have appreciated the dissenting views, I am relieved that I am not the only one who found this barren soil. I agree that it was not squeamishness that caused the reaction. I have read far darker and far more graphic depictions of violence and enjoyed/respected them. There seemed to be an underlying incoherence and not in a good way. Thank you for taking the time to commiserate.

      My vote is for “laudable completionist”. You have my respect for that. I am really only trying for ten to twelve this year (and may get to fewer than that. There are some that, by reputation, have insufficient appeal to me. I went into this one knowing nothing about it (I didn’t read the inside flaps until after finishing the book), but now wish that I had been warned and taken a pass.

      Thanks again for the comment.

      Kerry

      • Alice Under says:

        I’ve spent some time puzzling over why “Devil” was written in the first place. It’s so philosophically incoherent that if Pollock intended to express some overarching theme or message he lost track of it early on. My theory is that he’s a fan of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers and rather hoped that one or the other might pick his book for adaptation. I often had the distressing sense that he was imagining a filmic version when writing some of the scenes; to his credit, perhaps, some of them are rather cinematic: I could quite see, for instance, Carl lovingly flipping through his photographic in a squalid little room. And I wish that I had never read the book because now it’s just a pointless dark recurring image that will periodically resurface in my brain for some years to come. I prefer to think that Pollock could see it, too, and thought for some reason that his dirty little story would make a great movie and that that was his motivation–alternatives do not give me a very high opinion of his character.

        It’s books like this that make me regret my completionist attitude. At the same time, I wouldn’t stop it for the world–I probably would never have picked up something like “Open City”–which I liked and which, in the time since I read it, I’ve thought of frequently enough to give a very high retrospective grade in my mind. I love it when a book continues to grow upon itself after you’ve finished reading. Long live the tournament!

      • Kerry says:

        You are likely right that Pollock was hoping for a movie adaptation. The problem, in my mind, is that Devil lacks the all-important wit that is characteristic of Tarantino and the Coens. Those directors can be very graphic, but there is always a viciously sharp wit underlying the blood. They also extract, partly through humor but not only through humor, the common thread of humanity in their characters, even their bad characters. Pollock did not manage that. (As an example of a fail, young Arvin’s question quoted at the beginning of the review: “More than a hundred?” Yes, Arvin, there are more than a hundred bastards in this world, but aren’t you endearing for asking? No, actually, he isn’t.)

        The other thing is that neither moralizes. Pollock’s ending suggests, in addition to a bit of incoherence, a moralizing intent which made what had gone before even worse, in my view.

        But, happily, my reading this book has brought me in contact with you which has lead to your raves about Open City which, therefore, I am even more eager to read. I won’t let me expectations get the better of me, however, because you and others have suggested it gets better with age, i.e. the full force of it does not immediately hit.

        I do love it when books are like that (and great phrase “grow upon itself after you’ve finished”).

        Thanks for the continued conversation.

      • Alice Under says:

        I agree a thousandfold once again & can add no more to that agreement. But thank you for the review and the conversation–it’s been edifying.

        I very much hope that you enjoy Open City! I wasn’t sure at all that I liked it for most of the time I spent reading it but it has crept up on me in retrospect as a very excellent consideration of, among other things, identity and immigration; it makes me wish that I were still in school because I would love to converse about it with people more knowledgeable than I in these subjects and their representation in literature. I shall look forward to your review!

  5. I would be very interested in knowing how this book made it into the Tournament of Books.

    • Kerry says:

      There may be no trend, but it appears to me that it took the “thriller with some literary pretensions” slot filled by Savages last year. Next year, I will know to just skip that category…at least, I hope I will be wise enough to do so.

  6. […] from the Tournament that I actively wish I had not read. Kerry at Hungry Like the Woolf has an excellent review  which thoroughly covers my complaints. I’m too busy working on forgetting it to say […]

  7. An excellent review of a book I have no intention of reading.

    I love noir, so I have no issue with that, but noir still generally has a point. This reminds me of a thriller I read about three years back, which came highly reviewed by some literary sources but which I found a pointless catalogue of prurient ugliness. I read David Peace so it’s not as if I can’t handle prurient ugliness (he revels in the stuff), but Peace can write.

    Quality of execution makes all the difference.

    Violent men. Saintly women. A gentle-hearted, but still manly, hero. I’m comfortable with all of that in, say, a Zane Grey but it had better zip along and if we’re going to be in white and black hat territory I’d rather be unabashedly there with no pretense to literature at all.

    Anyway, thanks for the review Kerry. Not one for me, but no doubt it will have its fans and no doubt they’ll disagree (violently).

  8. I feel that you guys have been unduly harsh on ‘The Devil all the Time’. I just finished reading it and enjoyed it quite a bit. As a first novel, I think it delivers complex, multi-dimensional characters who are all at war, in some way or another, with themselves. Having been raised in Southern Ohio, and living in close proximity to many of the types of folks described in the novel, I can say that although some characters are quite exaggerated (it is a work of fiction, after all), I could imagine meeting people like them in the real world. As for the lack of a theme that many of the above reviews claim does not exist, I think that Pollock explores several. The power of blood and family, the healing and damaging effects of religion, anger and despair at one’s circumstances, the process of loss and disillusionment, living with sin, and the journey toward redemption are all explored in this novel, often in more than one character’s journeys. As for the narration shifts from character to character, I thought they were handled well, in an illuminating and smooth way. I was never confused as to whose perspective I was getting the story from–quite the opposite in fact. I think that this novel is a good example of omniscient narration done well, and could be a good book to study more closely if one was writing a book told from that sort of perspective.

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