The Devil All The Time by Donald Ray Pollock

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‘Some people were born just so they could be buried.’

The Devil All The Time is a sprawling, gritty, powerhouse of a book that follows the lives of a handful of characters as they fight to survive in the town of Knockemstiff and the surrounding towns of Ohio and West Virginia.

The opening of this book throws us right into the action and what life in this small town is like, and how brutal life here can be. We are introduced to two of our protagonists Willard; a returning soldier from World War 2 who had witnessed some unspeakable and barbaric acts whilst serving; clearly shell-shocked or suffering from PTSD his life is unraveling one frayed thread at a time. He and his son Arvin (who we see grow up into a young man – later in the book and takes over the narrative of these characters) are at the prayer log, a holy place that Willard has set up since returning from the war, a place where he and his son come to pray deep within the woods; to pray for what we are not sure, forgiveness, peace, hope, revenge?

But there time at the prayer log is interrupted by a couple of hunters, one of which says some disparaging remarks about Willard’s wife. Willard lets it slide and his son is stunned that his hot headed father would allow this to happen, but Willard is devout in his prayer and will get to this matter when he is good and ready. Later that evening he takes his son on a ride into town, where he confronts this loudmouth in brutal fashion, explaining to his son that you need to be smart and you need to find the right time to enact your revenge. This introduction sets the tone for this bleak and brutal story, which is told in unflinching and direct prose.

Pollock has a way of writing broken character that makes him one of America’s finest living authors. I love a character lead story and seeing the fallibility of man, I love gritty no holds barred accounts, and The Devil All The Time like so many of his works (Knockemstiff and The Heavenly Table) showcases this whilst also highlighting a masterful storyteller. It might not be for everyone’s liking, but for me I just can’t get enough of Pollock. I’m also sure that the latest Netflix film based on this book will bring Pollock a whole host of new readers thirsty to discover his work, I can only hope this is true, because more people need to discover this talented writer.

The next characters we are introduced to and who form another diverging narrative on this book are Brother Theodore (a cripple who plays the guitar whilst Roy preaches – he’s a complex character who we find out more as the story progresses) and Brother Roy (a devout man who’s intentions are more pure than his actions) – they have come to town to help with a revival service at the local church. It’s things of small town America which are written perfectly by Pollock and his no nonsense style of prose; Roy talks about sin, repentance and the fury that the devil has waiting for those who do not repent and confess their sins.

‘Mark my words, people, the Lord, He’ll take away all your fears if you let Him. Look what He’s done for me.’

The introduction of these two characters ends in a climatic scene where Brother Roy reaches underneath Brother Theodore’s wheelchair and produces a large jar of spiders, the descriptions here by Pollock are stunning and made my skin crawl. Roy then proceeds to pour this jar of spiders all over his head and face. For me it brought to mind those devout churches that put their hands in jars of snakes (testing God) praying that they won’t get bit, if they do, it was God’s will, if they don’t God protected them. It’s wonderfully rendered by Pollock and is one hell of an introduction for these two characters.

The other diverging narrative follows the lives of Carl and Sandy Henderson, two crazy characters that travel the roads picking up hitchhikers, Carl is a photographer, and Sandy his muse. The thing is they also have a taste for killing, for making snuff photography, Sandy is the bait in these traps and the honey on Carl’s lips. Each year they go on a ‘hunting‘ trip, scrimping and saving their money to allow them a holiday where they can take more photos and pick up more hitchhikers, away from their town – as Carl said ‘you don’t shit on your own doorstep’.

The final narrative is a continuation of Arvin’s. The first part of the book is told in almost flashbacks (him as a child), later we follow his life as he is sent to live with his grandma and we watch him blossom into a young but damaged man. He’s got a lot of his father in him, maybe too much his grandmother says. We watch as he becomes fiercely defensive of Lenora a young orphan who is staying with his grandmother also, she’s bullied regularly at school and he jumps to her defense often. Just when life starts to be settling down a new preacher moves into town Preston Teagardin and his young wife Cynthia – there’s something that Arvin doesn’t like about this man, something he can’t trust or put his finger on but when Preston takes an unhealthy liking to Lenora, Arvin feels his duty to protect her above all else.

There are also a whole host of secondary characters who have also been given great care and attention by Pollock, every person in this book adds to the sprawling narrative and adds something to the unfolding drama, chaos and lives left in tatters that litter the pages.

Pollock’s work is known for it’s sprawling narratives, how lives don’t seem connected until they are. His characters often split and the narrative gets richer and deeper because of it, lives become more broken and twisted. Pollock never loses control of the story, he lets it sprint off into the distance, but has the fortitude and the mastery to pull these things back, proving that no matter how far our characters want to run, they are always connected. And like fate, Pollock brings his cast of characters back from the brink to deliver a conclusion where all bets are off.

What I love about Pollock’s work is his sense of place and time. The Devil All The Time is beautifully rendered (both Ohio and West Virginia), the local, the townsfolk, the neighbouring suburbs. Pollock creates a world that you can lose yourself in (this is probably because he set’s his work where he lives and writes about what he knows). His rendering of the times he sets this story in are also astonishingly vivid, as his characters and the sprawling narrative takes us from the end of World War 2 right up to the 1960’s – it’s absoloutly stunning!

The Devil All The Time is a shocking, devastating and sorrow filled ride into the depravity of the human condition – a gritty, whiskey stained rendering of lives changed irrevocably by circumstance. A bleak sprawling revenge story that is painful to read at times, it’s vicious, honest, hits some taboo territory along the way which Pollock never shirks away from which in my opinion makes him one of the finest writers working today!

Do yourselves a favour and read the book before you watch the film.

The Devil All The Time is published by Doubleday and is available here.

Donald Ray Pollock

Donald Ray Pollock is an American writer. He first published his collection of short stories, Knockemstiff, in 2008, based on his experiences growing up in Knockemstiff, Ohio. His debut novel, The Devil All the Time, was published in 2011 to critical acclaim and his second novel The Heavenly Table was released in July 2016.

Reviewed by Ross Jeffery

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