Donald Ray Pollock, “Devil All the Time”

A writer friend recommended The Devil All the Time as a compelling example of a novel that reveals the dichotomy of the human spirit.

About all I can say to that is “boy, howdy.”

This same writer friend also likes writer John Irving for his ability to write about perverse and tragic situations and yet still make the reader laugh. I wouldn’t put Donald Ray Pollock and John Irving in the same boat for writing style. Pollock writes his gritty, relentless scenes with a nail gun while Irving’s sprawling tales are splattered out with a shotgun that’s got a loose choke. I understand my friend’s point although I don’t remember too many howls of laughter from The Devil All the Time.

Um, hardly.

Good writers, my friend suggests, can give you characters who experience hope and love in the face of great pain and tragedy. Broken characters give us insight into the ability of one person to harbor contrasting elements of the human spirit.

Broken characters abound in The Devil All the Time. They start broken. They finish more broken. Violence abounds. The violence often comes without warning. It’s matter-of-fact. As my writer friend cautioned, you won’t necessarily like any of the characters. She was right about that.

There will be blood—and lots of it. The Devil All the Time reads a bit like Cormac McCarthy channeling Flannery O’Connor. That’s not a fresh opinion; Pollock has drawn many comparisons to O’Connor. There are also comparisons to Jim Thompson and the casual, shocking violence has a flair akin to the Fargo television series or a movie by Quentin Tarantino.

If your appetite for brutal murders can handle the body count, the story has a guttural tug that will pull you along despite the bleak landscape and bleak people doing miserable things to acquaintances and utter strangers.

Set in West Virginia and southern Ohio from the years after World War II through the early 1960’s, the novel is a series of intertwining stories focused on grim (need I say it?) characters.  There is World War II veteran Willard Russell who builds a prayer log in a quiet grove to pray for his dying wife. Russell begins a series of blood sacrifices to boost his fervent pleas to help. First, it’s wildlife creatures that are sacrificed and, soon, humans who have been whacked with a hammer.

There’s husband-and-wife Carl and Sandy who spend a few weeks every year picking up unsuspecting hitchhikers who are then sexually abused, mutilated, and killed while Carl takes pictures. They are prolific killers.

And then there’s a pair of bug-eating evangelists who are also killers and Lee (Carl’s brother-in-law) who is as crooked a cop as you might ever meet. Yes, there is one ray of hope in Willard’s son Arvin who is looking for an escape.

The people here scrape by. Punishment is old school and Old Testament. Food is a constant issue, a driving force. Reverend Sykes, when he takes to the pulpit, counts the congregation twice in hopes of a big number—the more money in the basket, the better chance he and his wife can eat something other than hardtack and “warbled squirrel.” The warble is the bald lump or swollen area under the skin of the squirrel (I had to look this up) and it’s from the larvae of a fly that has sought to make its home under the squirrel’s skin. That’s as good a metaphor as any for this novel—bugs and rodents trying to co-exist and using each other as needed.

When the church’s small choir (two man and three women) stand up to sing it’s no surprise that they sing “Sinner, You’d Better Be Ready.”

And the reader, too.



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