The Devil All the Time
- Donald Ray Pollock
- 261 pp.
- Reviewed by Vick Mickunas
- August 3, 2011
In what the author calls a novel of “gothic hillbilly noir,” a pair of serial killers prowls the nation's highways in the 1960s.
Reviewed by Vick Mickunas
Donald Ray Pollock describes his first novel, The Devil All the Time, as “gothic hillbilly noir.” Pollock’s other book, the short story collection Knockemstiff (Doubleday), represents another example of this particular genre.
Knockemstiff is the name of the now vanished hamlet in southern Ohio where Pollock grew up. It was one of those tightly knit Appalachian communities where half the residents were related to Pollock by blood or by marriage.
Pollock was a keen observer. Knockemstiff lives on in his memories and upon the pages of his two books. Pollock spent 32 years laboring in the Mead paper mill at Chillicothe, Ohio. He still lives there. I called him the other day and asked him how he had come to the point where he decided to become an author.
He said, “Well, that was the thing that I told my wife when I first decided I was going to try this thing. I said look; I’m 45 and I’m going to give it five years. If at the end of that five years nothing’s happened I’ll give myself permission to quit and I can go on to my grave or to the rest home or whatever knowing that I at least gave it a shot. That was pretty much my attitude, that I at least had to try.”
Pollock spent years in his attic hunkered down over his typewriter. He found his voice and wrote the stories that comprise Knockemstiff. I interviewed him in 2008 when that book came out. I asked him if he was working on another project? He said he was trying to write a novel about a serial killer.
That project became Pollock’s debut novel, The Devil All the Time. Knockemstiff was dark and violent and filled with horror. But there were elements of humor too. Devil is even darker and the humor is more deadly. I shared this observation with Pollock. In regard to Knockemstiff , he explained that “with a book that dark, I had to have some funny stuff in there or the reader might end up wanting to commit suicide by the time they got done reading it.”
He continued: “I don’t know where that humor really comes from — I think maybe part of it comes from all the years that I worked at the paper mill. Because I worked with guys who could joke about anything. The biggest tragedy, they could joke about. Maybe I picked up on that , at least subconsciously. I’ve thought about it and thought about it and that’s really all that I can come up with is that I was just around a lot of people who had that gallows sense of humor about things.”
The Devil All the Time takes place between the years 1945 and 1966. The story begins in Knockemstiff in 1957. Readers are introduced to Willard and Charlotte Russell and their 9-year old son, Arvin. Willard is deeply religious, and when his wife begins to suffer from the ravages of a cancer her husband prays for a miracle to occur.
Willard’s love for Charlotte is a miraculous thing. But the only miracles that happen in Devil are those delivered by death. Death frees the innocent from the horrors of their lives. Evil-doers are delivered to death with a miraculous vengeance.
Arvin is the central character in this book. His father’s prayers and blood sacrifices to a vengeful God are for naught. This causes his son to turn his back on God. Pollock provided some insights: “I was trying to make Arvin the most sympathetic character in this book. But at the same time I didn’t want to overdo it. Arvin definitely has his faults. That’s pretty much the way the world is — even the best of people have their troubles and character defects … his father was a very violent man. But his mother was a very gentle person. So those two characteristics combined produced Arvin. He’s violent but at the same time he’s really, I think, a pretty decent man.”
There are some other sympathetic characters in the book, but not many. Nasty ones abound here. There’s a corrupt cop. A hate-filled lawyer. A preacher who abuses his congregation. There is a pair of carnival con artists. And of course there are the serial killers, Carl and Sandy. I asked Pollock about his predilection for reprehensible characters. He said: “I have wondered about that and even worried about that a little bit because there are quite a few people in here who are almost entirely unlikeable.”
“I guess I heard early on; well, you got to have trouble if you’re writing fiction. You got to stick some trouble in there. I tend to overdo it a little bit I suppose ... those are the people ... I don’t know if they come from my imagination ... I can’t really explain it or know the reason why ... they are the ones I focus on and probably the ones I most enjoy writing about. Writing the book, Carl and Sandy, when I was writing their scenes, that was when I was having my most fun with the book. It’s very strange, I know.”
Carl and Sandy roam the nation’s highways during the mid 1960s trolling for victims. She’s a decaying waitress. He’s a grotesque photographer. Pollock describes their thing as: “They live this dull life in Meade, Ohio, for the biggest part of the year. They always take a vacation in the summertime. They go out and pick up men, murder them, and photograph them.”
Pollock doesn’t pretend to be trying to convey some deeper meaning in his work. His characters come alive on the page. He leaves it to his readers to decide what all this means: “A lot of my stuff is action and dialogue and I don’t get too much into dwelling on the interior life — I try to show it through interactions more than their thoughts.”
Arvin is the thread that binds this story together. And there’s an otherness to Pollock’s characters that this reviewer finds strangely compelling. We might not be able to relate to the violence, but we comprehend the humanity — the flaws, the deceits, the crushed dreams, the hope that rises like a delicate flower from ashes.
Donald Ray Pollock’s prose gleams with dark beauty. The author has an ear for depicting how people truly speak. Here’s one lighter moment shared between father and son:
“The next morning when they got to the prayer log, fresh blood was still dripping off the sides into the rancid dirt. ‘This wasn’t here yesterday,’ Arvin said.”
“ ‘I run over a groundhog last night,’ Willard said. ‘Went ahead and bled him out when I got home.’
“ ‘A groundhog? Boy, he must have been a big one.’ ”
“Willard grinned as he dropped to his knees. ‘Yeah, he was. He was a big fat bastard.”
Vick Mickunas is a columnist, book reviewer, blogger and interviewer for the Dayton Daily News and other Cox Ohio newspapers. His work is available at http://www.daytondailynews.com/o/content/shared-gen/blogs/dayton/booknook/