In the realm of dark, guilty pleasures Donald Ray Pollock is literary crack. His characters wander the margins of society, walking into, or, unable to escape hellish existences. Few, if any of them have redeeming qualities, indeed, they are the lumpen terrible, folks you wouldn’t want to meet in a well-lit alley. Yet, Pollock’s rendering of these people will not let you put the book down, you absolutely must see what happens.
Pollock’s first novel, The Devil All the Time inhabits the same territory, both geographically, and spiritually, as his 2009 collection of short stories, Knockemstiff. Set in the southern portion of Ohio known as Appalachia, and West Virginia, it spans a time from post World War Two, into the late sixties. You’ve got Willard Russell, a WW2 veteran who saw too much in the south Pacific, came home and met the woman of his dreams in a cafe, marries, has a son, then begins to fall apart when she gets cancer. His son, Arvin Eugene Russell, weathers his mother’s demise, and his father going off the rails. You’ve got a crooked preacher and his crippled guitar-playing pedophile sidekick,who, despite terrible qualities, manage to define love between partners, and a palpable longing for home. Then, there’s the lovely serial killer couple, Carl and Sandy Henderson, who troll the highways looking for hitchikers, they call “models,” so they can photograph them in death. Pollock weaves the narrative so as to place these, and several other characters, in each other’s way, to shocking results.
This book is a blunt object, so prepare for a bibliographic bludgeoning. Willard Russell builds a prayer log in the woods, and offers animal sacrifices to try to save his wife. When a “starved and lame mutt” takes up at the house, Arvin feeds it scraps and names it Jack. Shoving the boy away from the dog, Willard dispatches it to doggie heaven with a .22 slug to the head, despite the boy begging him not to. He takes the dog to the prayer log and exhorts Arvin to pray loudly for his mother, but, the boy is driven to screaming “Jack, can you hear me?” Later, in the novel, we return to this grim scene and the subtle poignancy of the moment prompts me to tears.
The question arises: why read something like this? I had the good luck to be able to speak with James Dickey after a reading in Key West, many years ago. We were talking about sharks and barracuda, and he fixed me with that predatory stare and said “Did you ever notice how the most savage things in the world are also the most beautiful?” So it is with this book. I can say, without reserve, that you’ll walk away from it feeling better about yourself and those you love. It dredges up that feeling so hard to come by, these days, that of being grateful.