THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME by Donald Ray Pollock

Book Quote:

“Bodecker lifted his flashlight. Animals in various states of decay hung all around them, some in the branches and others from tall wooden crosses. A dead dog with a leather collar around its neck was nailed up high to one of the crosses like some kind of hideous sacrifice. The head of a deer lay at the foot of another. Bodecker fumbled with his gun. ‘Goddamn it, boy, what the hell is this?’ he said, turning the light back on Arvin just as a white, squirming maggot dropped onto the boy’s shoulder. He brushed it off as casually as someone would a leaf or a seed. Bodecker waved his revolver around as he started to back away.

‘It’s a prayer log,’ Arvin said, his voice barely a whisper now.”

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody  (JUL 12, 2011)

I read Donald Ray Pollock’s collection of short stories, Knockemstiff, in 2009 when it first came out. It amazed me with its brilliance at the same time that it wrenched my guts. His new book, The Devil All the Time is just as brilliant but feels more like a kick in the guts. It’s heavy, horrific, beautifully written and filled with studies of people one hopes never to meet. There were times when I felt like a voyeur, watching something that was meant to be private and not shared but I read on anyway, fascinated and sometimes disgusted, but always riveted and totally impressed with the quality of the writing. The tenor, weight and tension of the novel never lets up.

In my opinion, this book is as much a collection of interconnected short stories as it is a novel. It is not that different from Olive Kitteridge or The Imperfectionists in that sense. Many of the chapters can stand on their own and the novel brings the reader full circle from beginning to end.

The characters are like no others I have ever come across in literature. The closest I can think of are the two killers in Capote’s In Cold Blood and some of the works of Cormac McCarthy or early Stephen King. Pollock, however, stands alone. His writing is unique and powerful. The violence of his novel is riveting in its power, and is an icon to this writer’s magnificent ability to create characters and situations that have not been seen in literature previously.

The people in this novel form the milieu of the country hollers of Ohio and West Virginia. There are the two married killers, Sandy and Carl. They go trolling the highways looking for “models” who they photograph and kill in different states of sexual play with Sandy. Carl considers himself a photographer but his only claim to fame are the dozens of rolls of film he’s taken of his models in their death throes. Sandy appears, at least on the surface, to be more of a follower and less into the whole killing spree than Carl but underneath it all she enjoys the attention she gets as she grooms the models for what is coming. Pollock leaves a lot to the imagination and this makes situations even more scary, not that unlike a Hitchcock movie.

The book starts off with a family that is poor but loving. Willard is married to Charlotte who, at thirty years old, is diagnosed with terminal cancer. They have a ten-year-old son, Arvin. Willard can’t accept the fact that Charlotte will die and he gradually begins to lose his grip on reality. He builds a prayer log near their home and this log, along with the sacrifices he makes, is supposed to keep Charlotte alive. Willard and Arvin pray through the night, screaming their prayers so loud as to wake the town. When this doesn’t work, Willard starts to kill animals and tie them to the crosses he’s built that surround the prayer log. One of the sacrifices is even human. A cur wanders to their door and Arvin bonds to it, only to discover it bled to death and tied to a cross that evening as one of his father’s sacrifices.

After Charlotte dies, Willard commits suicide and Arvin is sent to live with his aunt Emma. He is a good boy, by and large, but he does have a streak of violence in him. He remembers his father telling him not to put up with bullies and to fight back. He is told that there is always a right time to get someone. His sister is sexually abused by a minister in their church and Arvin looks for the right time to take things into his own hands.

We meet Roy and Theodore, two cousins who are lay preachers in the hollers near Knockemstiff. Roy preaches while Theodore plays the guitar. Theodore is in a wheel chair because he drank too much strychnine in order to show the lord his love for him. Roy takes his greatest fears and uses these on the pulpit. He collects jugs of spiders and pours them over his body even though he is terrified of spiders. He tries to show the congregation that fears must be met head on. When Theodore goads Willard into killing someone so that he can test his powers by bringing them back to life, things quickly go south. They leave town and end up working for a traveling circus.

The novel traverses the 1940’s to the 1960’s. The environment is usually the hollers of Ohio, often Knockemstiff, where Pollock’s previous book takes place. While there is a lot of violence, there is much talk of redemption. God, redemption and prayer have a large role in this novel. Unfortunately, those who need redemption the most are sometimes the least likely to seek it.

There is never a dull moment in the novel. The world, from Donald Ray Pollock’s eyes, is a dangerous and formidable place. It’s a place “where the sun popped out like a big, festering sore in the sky,” where bodies rot, and blood spurts out of ripe wounds. It’s a place of poverty and god forsakenness. Perhaps that’s why so many people are seeking god. However, as the title says, it’s “The Devil All the Time.”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 42 readers
PUBLISHER: Doubleday (July 12, 2011)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Donald Ray Pollock
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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The Devil All the Time



July 12, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Character Driven, Contemporary, Short Stories

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