Throughout a decade or so of my checkered vocational career, I found myself driving on a weekly basis to rural areas of southern Ohio into the hollers and four-corners and whistle-stops that pepper the northern edge of Appalachia and Donald Ray Pollock’s dark and brilliant new novel. I also interacted on an up-close-and-personal basis with any number of folks who could be the real-world models for those populating Pollock’s enraptured fever dream, those for whom damnation in this world and the next has been all but a certainty from the day on which they were born, for whom a soft or cushioned failure is the closest thing to victory or happiness that they will ever experience. So please believe me when I tell you that Pollock is the real deal, and so is his long-awaited debut novel.
"Pollock’s voice is possessed of a rough, unvarnished clarity, one that will stay with you long after you have finished reading."
THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME takes place roughly from the mid-1940s through the mid-1960s, in southern Ohio and northern West Virginia, where the differences between the states are more marked on the map than in reality. Pollock makes some very minor adjustments in terrain and history, but there is nothing at all to quibble about here. Anyone familiar with the area that forms the backdrop for the book could practically lead you to this holler or that dirt back road that Pollock describes so unerringly. It is the characters, though, that form the crux of the story, bizarre and unpredictable but with a ring of truth and the scent of realness rising unmistakably from them. These are the people who one sees at county fairs, attending and working, the folks one might encounter in discount stores while trying not to stare. Some of them live in places like Meade, which is next to Kingston and below Circleville, just east of Chillicothe, which in turn is above the holler of Knockemstiff, the name of which graced the title of Pollock’s collection of short story jewels.
It is in Knockemstiff where THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME has its foreboding beginning and violent, haunting end. Here we meet Arvin Eugene Russell as a boy and, in the end, witness his violent entrance to adulthood. Between this rural alpha and omega, a cast of haunting characters dip and swirl throughout each other’s lives and into and out of Arvin’s as well, some only tangentially, some a bit more deeply. A traveling duo consisting of a silver-tongued preacher with a jug full of skin-crawling contents and his wheelchair-bound, guitar-playing cousin experience a rise and fall. Arvin’s parents encounter a sorrowful, insane end, with significant short- and long-term consequences.
Leo Bodecker, a Ross County sheriff with a penchant for corruption, tries to protect his sister, Sandy, from the vague but very real influence of her husband, Carl, a photographer from Columbus. It is Sandy and Carl who form the dark heart of the book: they are a pair who drive the state routes of the Midwest at whim, in widening and contracting circles, creating a series of strange and evil still-life documentaries for an audience of one. Their actions put them on a slow-motion collision course with Arvin, whose anger at his long-ago mistreatment has long been simmering.
THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME is a tale of coming of age, of rough justice, of dark coin paid for everything from bad choices to evil intent. This is a book that begs to be purchased so that one can underline passages and turns of phrase, though it is doubtful you will forget them. Pollock’s voice is possessed of a rough, unvarnished clarity, one that will stay with you long after you have finished reading. His words will crawl into and out of and across your brain like an army of spiders that will repel every effort at eviction. And yes, that’s a compliment, paid to the clarity of prose and the manifestation of the darkest imagination found on every page within.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 25, 2011