Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock

Talk about twisted. This book is chock full of desperation, degradation, and depravity. It is not for the faint of heart. It is repugnant in its violence, shameful in its sexual perversion and almost completely devoid of redeeming qualities in its characters, among whom are serial killers, religious zealots, bent lawmen, dying cancer patients, and preachers of the gospel according to Caligula.

That said, The Devil All the Time is an exceptional book. Pollock, whose first short story collection Knockemstiff was also quite bracing in its portrayals of the residents of a small southern Ohio town, doesn't shy away from anything in this, his first novel. The book begins with a savage beating and never looks back. It is an unflinching portrait of loss, pain and sacrifice bound together by ignorance and blind faith. Together these elements can only lead to doom.

Yet out of all these grotesque characters, there is one, a young man named Arvin Russell whom we follow from beginning to end. He is the only character who might be able to escape the utter ruin that surrounds him and shed his unfortunate birthright, the cycle of violence, poverty and ignorance. It is through Arvin that any of this takes on any humanity at all.

Pollock grew up in Knockemstiff, Ohio, where he worked in a meatpacking plant and a paper mill for years before he took up writing in his 50s. What he writes is the darkest of the dark, tinged with humor so black you can miss it because you just got punched in the face again by the story.  Yet somehow, while we recoil at the acts we read about and the pain all the characters feel, it is through Arvin that Pollock manages to bring to light the smallest sparks of redemption and hope. 

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