The Devil All the Time (Book Review)

In anticipation of this week’s premiere (September 16th) of the film adaptation on Netflix, here’s a review of the Donald Ray Pollock novel that I first posted on my old Macabre Republic blog back in 2011.

The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock (Doubleday, 2011)

Willard Russell, a haunted World War II veteran who pours sacrificial animal (and then human) blood over a backwoods “prayer log” in hopes of curing his wife’s cancer. Roy Lafferty, a darkly carnivalesque preacher who spills a jar full of spiders over his head while sermonizing, and who kills his own wife when mistakenly believing he possesses the power to raise her from the dead. Carl and Sandy Henderson, a married couple whose summer vacations consist of driving cross country, picking up drifters, photographing them having sex with Sandy and then murdering them and arranging even more graphic poses. These are just some of the ignoble figures parading through the pages of Donald Ray Pollock’s audacious debut novel (following his 2009 short story collection Knockemstiff).

As might be guessed from the book’s title, The Devil All the Time is relentless in its presentation of macabre incident and employment of mordant wit. Not since Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust has a novel been so thoroughly populated with grotesques. Practically every character the reader meets seems to be some form of sexual deviant or blasphemous believer. But Pollock does not present depravity just for the hell of it; with his main characters, at least, he takes the time to round them out, to develop their backstories and delve into their present mindsets. To cite one exemplary passage, here are Carl’s ruminations following the Henderson’s most recent photo “shoot”:

When the fire died out, Carl kicked the ashes around in the gravel, then took a dirty bandanna from his back pocket and picked up the hot belt buckle and the smoking remains of the army boots. He flung them out into the middle of the gravel pit and heard a faint splash. As he stood at the edge of the deep hole, Carl thought about the way that Sandy had wrapped her arms around the army boy when she saw him set the camera down and pull the pistol out, like that was going to save him. She always tried that shit with the pretty ones, and though he couldn’t really blame her for wanting it to last a while longer, this wasn’t just some damn fuck party. To his way of thinking, it was the one true religion, the thing he’d been searching for all his life. Only in the presence of death could he feel the presence of something like God. He looked up, saw dark clouds beginning to gather in the sky. He wiped some sweat out of his eyes and started back to the car. If they were lucky, maybe it would rain tonight and wash some of the scum out of the air, cool things off a bit.

Pollock splashes his paint on a broad canvas, cutting back and forth between West Virginia and central Ohio and tracing the lives of his characters over a two-decade span. The ultimately dovetailing plotlines might at first seem over-reliant on coincidence, until one realizes that such outcomes are in perfect keeping with the author’s naturalism. For Pollock, grim fate perennially plays a hand, and his characters have been molded (“warped” might be the better word) by the forces of biological and environmental determinism. Yet despite all this bleakness, the narrative still manages to strike a redemptive note in its final pages.

Honestly, this novel is not for the weak of stomach or the easily offended (some readers will be hard-pressed to get past the scene where maggots rain down from rotting carcasses). William Faulkner reads like Little Lord Fauntleroy compared to Pollack’s unflinching depiction of grotesquerie. The Devil All the Time is as Gothic as American literature can get, which is perhaps the loftiest praise I could ever give a book. Highly, highly recommended.

 

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