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Review: The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock

The Devil All the Time CoverTitle: The Devil All the Time
Author: Donald Ray Pollock
Genre: Southern Gothic/Thriller/Suspense/Horror
Publisher: Doubleday
Rating: 5 out of 5

Synopsis:

From the acclaimed author of Knockemstiff—called “powerful, remarkable, exceptional” by the Los Angeles Times—comes a dark and riveting vision of America that delivers literary excitement in the highest degree. 

In The Devil All the Time, Donald Ray Pollock has written a novel that marries the twisted intensity of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers with the religious and Gothic over­tones of Flannery O’Connor at her most haunting.

Set in rural southern Ohio and West Virginia, The Devil All the Timefollows a cast of compelling and bizarre characters from the end of World War II to the 1960s. There’s Willard Russell, tormented veteran of the carnage in the South Pacific, who can’t save his beautiful wife, Charlotte, from an agonizing death by cancer no matter how much sacrifi­cial blood he pours on his “prayer log.” There’s Carl and Sandy Henderson, a husband-and-wife team of serial kill­ers, who troll America’s highways searching for suitable models to photograph and exterminate. There’s the spider-handling preacher Roy and his crippled virtuoso-guitar-playing sidekick, Theodore, running from the law. And caught in the middle of all this is Arvin Eugene Russell, Willard and Charlotte’s orphaned son, who grows up to be a good but also violent man in his own right.

Donald Ray Pollock braids his plotlines into a taut narrative that will leave readers astonished and deeply moved. With his first novel, he proves himself a master storyteller in the grittiest and most uncompromising American grain.

Review:

Some novels come along and make you question your own beliefs. They hold a mirror in your face and make you ask if you really are the person who you are presenting.

Gritty and noir, The Devil All The Time is composed of intertwining stories that span from the 1940s to the 1960s. This is done masterfully as Pollock describes each character and location in a way as to not overburden us, but to help us understand and see the world he has created. We are reminded of the importance of faith and religion throughout the novel with tales of the consequences of their misuse.

Pollock’s novel is kick started with us seeing Arvin, a nine year old boy, follow his father, Willard, into the woods to pray at what has become their church; a log. In the prologue, we learn much about Willard and Arvin’s small family of three. We learn that their family is relatively new to the holler of Knockemstiff, Willard has a drinking problem and is very religious, the mother, Charlotte is known for her beauty, Arvin has trouble at school with the other kids, and the best day that Arvin ever spent with his father was the day he watched him beat a man to a bloody pulp. If this doesn’t set the pace of what the reader will find ahead, I’m not sure what will.

Here’s the thing, Pollock immerses you in the story. It spans from post WWII Ohio to the 1960s. Using the third-person omniscient point of view, we get to see the seedy thoughts of the characters. We watch them act, unable to change the terrible lies, murders, and deceit that they do throughout. You’ll want to stop reading, not because you don’t like the style or story. On the contrary, you’ll want to stop reading because you’ll realize that there are actually people in the world that act this way and because you cannot save the characters who’ve done nothing to deserve death. Pollock doesn’t describe his characters in an unrealistic fashion. They are more than real. People like this exist and the author doesn’t need to embellish their descriptions and deeds. This is what makes this story riveting. You will fear the unsaid thoughts of your friends and neighbors.

Even with the constant current of impending doom, we do have foils for the characters. The hand full of pure and honest are necessary in a tale such as this to show the difference between them. The foils provide hope, that perhaps there is a chance for redemption in the story. Perhaps some characters will change. Maybe the couple who spend their vacations by picking up hitchhikers and killing them will decide that they’ve done enough. Will the preacher who takes advantage of the young female virgins in his congregation ever see the light? WIll I ever stop being happy at the demise of some characters?

I found myself rooting and hoping for Arvin throughout. We learn the most about him. Everything from the how his parents met to the novel’s present day when he is in his late teens/early twenties. He has seen good and evil and has done a little bit of both. Arvin is the thread that holds the story together even though he is not in every scene of the book. My hope for him is that he will turn out to be good. I hope that he can identify the evil in others and turn away from it. Another character may have outlined what Arvin’s life may be in the future when he said:

It’s hard to live a good life,” he said. “It seems like the Devil don’t ever let up.

Note: While reading this novel, I discovered that Mr. Pollock was awarded Le Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. Congratulations. It it most deserved.

* Previously posted on Literati Literature Lovers

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