When you choose to read Donald Ray Pollock’s fiction, you enter a moral wasteland in southern Ohio where people live moment to moment motivated by self-serving perversion. Such is the reading experience of his acclaimed short-story collection Knockemstiff, published in 2008, and also of his new novel released this month. The Devil All the Time takes place for the most part in Meade, Ohio, under the acrid smell of the paper mill, and also in nearby Coal Creek, West Virginia. The time is the 1940s through the 1960s.
Be forewarned: this novel is for readers who like their fiction dark. The behaviors of the delusional preachers and sexually deviant serial killers who come to life in the novel’s vivid scenes are offensive. Disgusting as their lives may be, one cannot deny the exceptional talent Pollock brings to portraying depravity with his keen, unflinching grip on human nature. These morally blind people aren’t simply created for shock value. Pollock’s raw style — void of spectacle and focused on authenticity — creates the sense they are who they are and, although cloaked in fiction, so would they be in real life.
There’s Willard Russell, who’s returned from fighting in the Word War II Pacific theater, damaged by what he witnessed, including a Marine skinned alive by the Japanese. That gruesome image sets the tone for what’s to come — Willard performs bloody animal and human sacrifices over a prayer log in the Ohio woods. He hopes these efforts will divinely heal his sick wife. When she dies, Willard commits suicide, and his son Arvin goes to live with his grandmother in Coal Creek.
By this time, we’ve been introduced to Lee Bodecker, Meade’s corrupt sheriff concerned about his 16-year-old sister, who’s “inclined to go along with whatever anyone asked her to do.” We’ve also met the spider-eating preacher Roy Laferty and his crippled guitar-strumming cousin Theodore. These two crank evangelists take their holy-roller beliefs too far when Roy thinks he can bring the dead back to life, and they murder Roy’s wife to test the belief.
That’s part one of the novel. In part two, we meet serial killers Carl and Sandy (Bodecker) Henderson. Sandy is now 25 and an accomplice to her husband, who likes to pick up male hitchhikers, photograph them in sexual acts with his wife and then kill them.
As the stories evolve in the novel’s seven sections, occasionally it’s hard to keep track of the passing years. That’s because it’s not always obvious what year it is when we transition into a new section, or how much time has passed. There’s a lot going on here with Arvin in Coal Creek, Roy and Theo on the lam in Florida and Sandy and Carl hunting the highways, and without an exact feel for how the timing unfolds, it creates some minor confusion.
The strongest parts of the book, and there are many, engage us fully, such as a very compelling story about Roy Laferty’s daughter, Leonora. She gets in trouble with a seductive new preacher in Coal Creek and takes her own life as a consequence. There’s a gut-wrenching moment when she’s midway through the suicide attempt and changes her mind, but it’s too late.
Pollock demonstrates expert control of his pathetic characters and concludes with an impressive convergence of their lives. Among the lot, it’s the misguided, squalid Roy, hitchhiking his way home to Coal Creek, who explains why people living sordid lives can’t stop their evil ways. From the backseat of their car, he says to Carl and Sandy: “It’s hard to live a good life. It seems like the Devil don’t ever let up.”