Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff really floored me, a prime fucking example of the (far too) rare short story collection that’s just as satisfying as a novel. By exploring the lives of the down-and-out citizens of the po-dunk shit-hole town Knockemstiff, Ohio over many years, Pollock created a world as vivid and satisfying as Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegone. But unlike Keillor’s quietly despairing small town Scandinavians, when life puts the screws to one of Pollock’s characters they’re more likely to cut someone’s cock off in a drunken rage than put things in perspective over coffee at the lunch counter of the Chatterbox Cafe. With his debut novel, The Devil All the Time, Pollock doesn’t soften the blows or lower the stakes in the slightest, making for one of the best novels the Nerd has read all year.
The Devil All the Time opens with ten year-old Arvin Russell, son of slaughterhouse employee and Pacific Theatre WWII vet Willard Russell, joining his father at the “prayer log” his father worships at in the woods at sun-up and sun-down. When cancer starts to eat away Willard’s wife, their trips to the log become more frequent and more intense, Willard eventually making animal and then human sacrifices to the log, yet his wife’s condition never improves.
We later come to meet husband and wife thrill-killers Sandy and Carl Henderson, who take a couple weeks off every summer to drive around the Midwest picking up hitchhikers, Sandy eventually fucking them and Carl killing them during the act, catching the pivotal moment on his prized camera. The rest of the year Carl just beats it to his more successful snapshots and Sandy tends bar at the Tecumseh, occasionally selling her ass out back, but for those two weeks they’re in sync.
Also in the mix is tent revival preacher Roy and wheelchair-bound guitar virtuoso Theodore, the duo on the run with the carnival ever since Roy’s belief that he could raise the dead lead to him stabbing his wife then being unsurprisingly unsuccessful at reviving her. The lives of all these characters and more come to intersect in horrifying ways as The Devil All the Time plays out.
Pollock has an unforced way with place and period, his hills of Ohio and West Virginia in the fifties and sixties evoked with ease, no detail lingered on for too long or dealt with too quickly. His prose and dialogue is never showy but consistently vivid, his sick glimpses into his characters’ psyches and actions staining your brain with shit and blood. And though The Devil All the Time is undeniably dark stuff, as grim a novel about violence and religion as there ever was, Pollock’s vision is not without hope or humor. Like Daniel Woodrell’s work, you see the despair but also the appeal of these characters existences, like the nights spent drinking whiskey on the porch or making out with a red-haired girl who can curse like a sailor.
But these are matters you must experience for yourself. The Devil All the Time is as lurid and hellish as the nastiest horror novel yet frighteningly recognizable as a world not long behind us. The violence is incessant and disgusting, the religious perversion and fervor palpable, and the pace un-fucking-flagging. The Devil All the Time is the most original and exciting book I’ve read in a long-ass while, and soon we will all speak of Donald Ray Pollock in the same sentence with authors like Scott Phillips, the aforementioned Woodrell and William Gay – the guy’s just that fucking good.