The Devil All the Time
Donald Ray Pollock
272 pp., 26.95
The Devil All the Time
Donald Ray Pollock's personal story is in some ways almost as surprising and fascinating as the deeply moving and sometimes outrageous tales he spins. Pollock was raised in Knockemstiff, a rough little hamlet in southern Ohio. According to legend, the town was named after a fistfight. As one version of the story goes, two women were fighting over a man in front of a church, one the wife and the other a girlfriend. The preacher said he heard one of them swear she was going to knock the other one stiff.
I also grew up in Knockemstiff, about a mile down the road from Pollock, and often rode my bike to the little cinderblock store his parents owned, to trade pop bottles for candy bars and RC cola. We were classmates in school, though he dropped out before graduating, working first in a slaughterhouse, then in a paper mill, where he remained for 32 years, mostly as a truck driver. Along the way, amid bouts with alcoholism and failed marriages, he started taking night classes and earned his college degree. Then, around the age of 45, he came to the unlikely realization that he wanted to be a writer. Initially, he worked to hone his skills by typing out, word for word, the stories of writers he admired, much like a garage band plays cover songs in order to get a feel for how to write their own music. He told me over lunch one day that his rather modest goal, at that point, had been to publish just one good short story. As he pursued this goal, a couple of his stories caught the attention of a professor at Ohio State, who was so struck by them that she persuaded him, against his own wishes and better judgment, to quit his job and study creative writing. While working on his MFA there, he published Knockemstiff, a jarring collection of short stories that garnered considerable critical acclaim and won the PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship for Writers.
One of the more memorable characterizations of Pollock's debut book was given by the novelist Katherine Dunn, who described him as a "godless Flannery O'Connor." And indeed, Pollock's bizarre characters are dirty, depraved, and desperate losers who often dream of a better life, fantasize about it, and sometimes hatch ill-conceived schemes to get out of Knockemstiff and seek the big time. Yet, sadly, their deeply rooted vices and ignorance invariably keep them there. Knockemstiff, it seems, is almost an image of the human condition.
A common theme running through most reviews of Pollock's first book was the absence of redemption in his stories and the sense of utter hopelessness they display. There is, to be sure, an occasional glimmer of light. In "Lard," for example, one of the characters, ashamed by the way he talked about his imaginary girlfriend to impress his vulgar friends, is moved to show kindness to a real person badly in need of some humane treatment. In "Giganthomachy," two young boys are wiping out a huge ant hill, pretending the ants are a horde of giants. As they discuss what roles they want to play in their make-believe world, one of them finally says: "We're gods. Only a god can stop something this big." Their play is interrupted by a scream from the house of the boy who had been speaking. He realizes that his abusive father is yet again beating his mother, and he better go help. Reminding himself that he is a god, and that gods can do anything, he bravely charges toward the house to try to intervene.
That is about as real as the gods ever seem to be in Knockemstiff. As much as we may need them to help us deal with the gigantic problems we face, the gods figure here, if at all, as the stuff of boys' fantasies, conjured up to help them cope with a brutal and chaotic world. A passage from "Fish Sticks" expresses the same sentiment with specific reference to Christianity, in a description of a Laundromat bulletin board.
There was a notice for a big tent revival over on the hopeless side of town, a crudely written flyer promising a better life, something that Del had craved for a long time …. [M]ore than anything, the poster dredged up memories for Del, reminded him of the time he and Randy wasted an entire year attending the Shady Glen Church of Christ in Christian Union just to win a prize, a little red Bible that fell apart the first hot day. They were eight years old.
Perhaps even more telling is a passage in "Holler" about a pitiful, paralyzed old man who is haunted by memories of the Korean War. He makes it through his miserable days by getting drunk every morning and staying that way: "Except for a constant tremor in his left hand, he was as dead as Jesus from the chest down."
Although references to religion are relatively sparse in Knockemstiff, the picture that emerges is that Jesus is dead and Christianity's promise of a better life is a fantasy for hopeless people, a delusion that can't stand the heat and is bound to crumble in the crucible of real life. Religion is a phantom hope certain to be crushed by elemental realities—violence, bad luck, treachery, lust—leaving ever deeper disillusionment in their wake.
By striking contrast, religion pervades the pages of The Devil All the Time, Pollock's first novel. On the very first page of the book, a man is on his knees in the woods, fervently praying alongside his young son. As we later learn, his wife is dying of cancer, and he comes to his "prayer log" every morning and evening, except when he is drunk, and pleads for God to spare her life. Already undermined by some of the atrocities he witnessed in the South Pacific in the war, his sanity begins to slip as he resorts to ever more drastic measures in pouring oblations on his altar in hopes that God will honor his sacrifice and reward his faith. His young son, Arvin, can't decide which is worse, the praying or the drinking, but when he ends up losing both his parents in short order, he concludes that he is done with the praying.
While the story begins and ends in Knockemstiff, it takes its readers on a bracing ride to places as far away as California and Florida, courtesy of the misadventures of the unforgettable cast of characters Pollock assembles. Early in the story, when Arvin's father has returned from the war to his home in Coal Creek, West Virginia, we meet Roy and Theodore, traveling preachers who are more Barnum and Bailey than Billy Sunday. When one of them emerges as a suspect in a serious crime, they run from the law, taking their show on the road with a traveling circus. Then we have Carl and Sandy Henderson, a husband-and-wife team of serial killers whose vacations consist of trolling the highways looking for hitchhikers whom Carl uses as "models" to photograph having sex with his wife, before dispatching them to eternity. Sandy's brother, it turns out, is the crooked sheriff back in Meade, the county seat in Knockemstiff's territory. While all this is going on, Arvin is growing up with his godly grandmother in Coal Creek, where he moved after the death of his parents.
Pollock invariably keeps a tight grip on his carefully crafted prose, even when describing the chilling deeds of Sandy and Carl. His language is as precise as it is evocative and moving. Readers should be forewarned, however, that his books are raw and gritty, and many of his characters are as revolting as they are compelling. Amazon.com reviewers of his first book confessed that they found themselves thoroughly disgusted with Pollock's characters even as they could not look away. As fascinated as they were, they assure us, they would never want to actually meet any of these people. Pollock writes about all of his characters in a way that steers clear of both condescension and sentimentality. He is close enough to them to know them, but he is acutely aware of the folly and perversity of their choices, just as he is of the circumstances that entangle them and predispose them to their chosen paths.
The Devil All the Time is decidedly darker than Pollock's first book, and yet it is simultaneously much more hopeful. What may be surprising for readers of Knockemstiff is the positive role Christianity plays in the novel. While this book has several characters who wildly distort the Christian faith or, worse, exploit the faith of others in a despicable fashion, it also has, more subtly, some representatives of the genuine article. One of these is the preacher at Coal Creek, where Arvin and his grandmother attend church, a goodhearted man whose story involves a chewing tobacco pouch that has attained something like sacramental significance. But his nephew, who comes to replace him when he must retire for health reasons, is as corrupt as his uncle is goodhearted.
Not all the characters, however, represent such extremes. Even Roy turns out to be a more complicated figure than he first appears. Arvin's grandmother continues to read her Bible, despite dealing with numerous personal tragedies and the disillusionment created by her phony new pastor. Some of her ideas require adjustment, but the Bible has not fallen apart in her hands.
Arvin is the main character who ties all these colorful threads together, and the conclusion of the story is both rousing and engrossing. Whatever small measure of faith he possesses has by this time taken some severe blows, but as he returns to Knockemstiff in pursuit of redemption from his stormy past, he is moved to pray again. Perhaps the most suggestive threads in the book regarding faith, however, are the handful of references to images of Calvary, beginning in the prologue, where they establish the fanatical tendencies of Arvin's father. But by the time the story reaches its tense resolution, Arvin is beginning to see Calvary in a different light.
I do not want to put words into Pollock's mouth, but perhaps it is telling that in the new book by this allegedly "godless" writer, Calvary emerges as a sober image of hope in a world inhabited by serial killers, whores, drunks, bullies, treacherous frauds, and disillusioned believers. Perhaps at the end of the day, nothing else allows us to look at such people—or at ourselves—without turning away in despair.
Jerry L. Walls is currently a Visiting Scholar in the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Notre Dame. His most recent book is Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality, co-authored with David Baggett. His forthcoming book Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation completes a trilogy on the afterlife, following Hell: The Logic of Damnation and Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy.
Copyright © 2011 Books & Culture. Click for reprint information.