Donald Ray Pollock’s debut novel, The Devil All The Time, picks up the mantle from him short story collection named after and set in the fictional town of Knockemstiff, as Arvin Eugene Russell follows his father Willard to their praying log, ‘the remains of a big red oak that had fallen many years ago’, a short walk from ‘the edge of a pasture that overlooked a long and rocky holler in southern Ohio’. What Arvin goes on to think of as the best day of his life starts badly – two hunters disturb their prayers, sneering at their ‘revival meeting’ and badmouthing his mother. Later, however, and driving home a message that a person has to choose his moment carefully, Willard takes Arvin for a drive, finds the hunters in question and beats the living tar out of them. ‘They’s a lot of no-good sonofabitches out there,’ his father says. Pollock conjures a good few of them within the pages of his novel.
Alongside a narrative that inks in Arvin and his father’s story – his father returning from war, rejecting a provisional proposal of marriage with a homely local girl arranged by his mother in favour of a waitress with a ‘tiny, barely visible scar above her left eyebrow’ – Pollock’s eye ranges unfettered across a number of characters, from an ugly couple given to spending their summers picking up hitchikers they photograph and kill to a pair of religious sorts who eat spiders and cavort with bird-lady freaks. Unlike Knockemstiff, however (which played out like a Faulkner-esque version of The League of Gentlemen), The Devil All The Time has apparently disparate characters on a collision course, in which the sins of the father are redeemed by the son, geography working like a snake charm.
There’s a murky through line from the aforementioned Faulkner through Cormac McCarthy and Daniel Woodrell to Donald Ray Pollock. The Devil All The Time has a compex and rewarding narrative structure that will have readers second guessing what is likely to happen to the various characters. Like TC Boyle, Pollock is also tremendously skilful when it comes to imbuing seemingly unlikeable characters (such as Bodecker, the corrupt local sheriff, and Carl Henderson, one half of the serial killing couple, the pair of them like Badlands seen through a countryfair hall of mirrors) with our sympathies. Ultimately, The Devil All The Time is a novel that sits howling for you to return every time circumstance forces you to leave it for a short while (and it doesn’t matter how far you go from the paperback, you’ll hear it howling until you pick it up again and jump back into the occasionally fetid backwater world Pollock has created). In other words, it’s one of the good ones and you should search this bad boy out if you know what’s good for you.
Any Cop?: It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who dabbled with Knockemstiff – but the rest of you: if you’re a fan of Woodrell or early McCarthy (think The Orchard Keeper or Child of God), this is essential.