The Devil All The Time by Donald Ray Pollock

February 21, 2012

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.