The Devil All the Time
Donald Ray Pollock
Doubleday: 272 pp., $26.95
It's hard to believe there was once a real town called Knockemstiff, but it's the place in southern Ohio where writer Donald Ray Pollock was born in 1954. It was also the name of his literary debut, a widely acclaimed short-story collection that came out in 2008. Pollock was a high school dropout and worked for 32 years in a paper plant — an unusual entry into publishing — before getting an MFA and racking up writing awards.
Pollock's first novel, "The Devil All the Time," should cement his reputation as a significant voice in American fiction. It's set partly in Knockemstiff and in nearby West Virginia in the decades after World War II. It's fair to say these places are underrepresented in literary fiction, as are the characters that people them. In "The Devil All the Time," there's a female bartender who offers sexual favors to make extra money, because her boyfriend doesn't work. There's a good preacher and a couple of lousy ones. There's Willard, who comes back from fighting in the Pacific and falls in love with the waitress who serves him bad meatloaf when he's nearly home. The people are poor, the towns are tiny, and suffering and darkness are usually at hand.
In this collage of characters, a few main story lines head for convergence. Central is Arvin, the son of Willard and his waitress bride. The small family doesn't have much money, and they move out to a rural cabin where it becomes clear to young Arvin that he'll have a hard time being as tough as his dad. The book opens with his father refusing to interrupt a prayer when another man makes salacious comments about his wife — then brutally beating the man hours later as the boy watches, impressed. "You just got to pick the right time," he tells his son. It's a high point of fatherhood for Willard, who had horrifying war experiences; when his wife falls seriously ill, he makes increasingly disturbing choices. He enlists Arvin into his prayer rituals — solitary, desperate and bloody — roping the two together in dual terrors of grief.
Pollock deftly shifts from one perspective to another, without any clunky transitions — the prose just moves without signal or stumble, opening up the story in new ways again and again. We know one preacher is good because we read his thoughts — which he never shares with his flock — about how hungry he is. We can't help but have empathy for Sheriff Bodecker because we see how he believes himself to be doing what's right — never mind that he is ambitious, corrupt and doesn't take very good care of his sister Sandy, the woman turning tricks at the bar.
The point of view just as frequently shifts to marginal characters, like one unnamed farmer. "The man looked past Carl at Sandy standing beside the station wagon. She was lighting a cigarette. He didn't approve of women who smoked. Most of them he'd known were trash, but he figured a man who took pictures for a living probably couldn't get anything decent. Hard to tell where he had picked her up."
This short interlude shows us a rare view of them from the outside; Sandy and Carl are not at all decent, it turns out. Back in the early '60s, they were just trouble; now we'd label Carl a sexual predator and call the two of them serial killers. The serial killer trope is fairly tired, but in the novel Pollock's submerged perspectives keep it from getting tiresome. They have a routine: They take road trips and pick up hitchhikers whom Carl photographs with Sandy, as she complies with varying levels of consternation and acceptance. There is, of course, sex and perversion and death. We read a lot of Sandy's side of things and a little of Carl's, mostly when they're driving the car or arguing afterward in a hotel — the murders are not dwelled upon. Only toward the end of the book do other characters' perspectives allow us to see the grisliness of their crimes.
Mixed in with all this are Arvin's extended family, who have taken in him and a girl about his age. The story revisits them as they grow up together: Arvin is sociable and handsome while she's homely and severely religious. The church is a major part of their world, and three bad preachers are too. A pair come from a nearby town — one perhaps is insanely devout, the other increasingly embittered after crippling himself to prove his faith; the third is modern, slick, and has a taste for teenage girls.
The characters are bound to intersect. Sheriff, sisters, preachers, killers, Arvin: who will collide and how gives the book a real page-turning tension. But where any prime-time television show can incite nail-biting with a lurking killer, Pollock has done much more. He's layered decades of history, shown the inner thoughts of a collage of characters, and we understand how deeply violence and misfortune have settled into the bones of this place. The question is much more than whether someone will die — it is, can the cycle of bloodletting break? This applies both to the people Pollock so skillfully enlivens as it does to the place he's taken as his literary heritage.