Book Nook: The Devil All The Time, by Donald Ray Pollock

Aug 2, 2012

Last year I reviewed Donald Ray Pollock's debut novel for the Washington Independent Review of Books. Here's an excerpt from what I wrote:

"The Devil All the Time takes place between the years 1945 and 1966. The story begins in Knockemstiff (Ohio) in 1957. Readers are introduced to Willard and Charlotte Russell and their 9-year old son, Arvin. Willard is
deeply religious, and when his wife begins to suffer from the ravages of a cancer her husband prays for a miracle to occur.

Willard’s love for Charlotte is a miraculous thing. But the only miracles that happen in Devil are those delivered by death. Death frees the innocent from the horrors of their lives. Evil-doers are delivered to death with a miraculous vengeance.

Arvin is the central character in this book. His father’s prayers and blood sacrifices to a vengeful God are for naught. This causes his son to turn his back on God. Pollock provided some insights: “I was trying to make Arvin the most sympathetic character in this book. But at the same time I didn’t want to overdo it. Arvin definitely has his faults. That’s pretty much the way the world is — even the best of people have their troubles and character defects … his father was a very violent man. But his mother was a very gentle person. So those two characteristics combined produced Arvin. He’s violent but at the same time he’s really, I think, a pretty decent man.”

There are some other sympathetic characters in the book, but not many. Nasty ones abound here. There’s a corrupt cop. A hate-filled lawyer. A preacher who abuses his congregation. There is a pair of carnival con artists. And of course there are the serial killers, Carl and Sandy. I asked Pollock about his predilection for reprehensible characters. He said: “I have wondered about that and even worried about that a little bit because there are quite a few people in here who are almost entirely unlikeable.”

“I guess I heard early on; well, you got to have trouble if you’re writing fiction. You got to stick some trouble in there. I tend to overdo it a little bit I suppose … those are the people … I don’t know if they come from my imagination … I can’t really explain it or know the reason why...they are the ones I focus on and probably the ones I most enjoy writing about. Writing the book, Carl and Sandy, when I was writing their scenes, that was when I was having my most fun with the book. It’s very strange, I know.”

Carl and Sandy roam the nation’s highways during the mid 1960s trolling for victims. She’s a decaying waitress. He’s a grotesque photographer.  Pollock describes their thing as: “They live this dull life in Meade,
Ohio, for the biggest part of the year. They always take a vacation in the summertime. They go out and pick up men, murder them, and photograph them.”

Pollock doesn’t pretend to be trying to convey some deeper meaning in his work. His characters come alive on the page. He leaves it to his readers to decide what all this means: “A lot of my stuff is action and dialogue and I don’t get too much into dwelling on the interior life — I try to show it through interactions more than their thoughts.”

Arvin is the thread that binds this story together. And there’s an otherness to Pollock’s characters that this reviewer finds strangely compelling. We might not be able to relate to the violence, but we comprehend the humanity — the flaws, the deceits, the crushed dreams, the hope that rises like a delicate flower from ashes...."

Donald Ray Pollock was our guest on the program last year when the book came out in hardcover. It was just re-issued in paperback. Pollock still resides in Chillicothe. In this latest interview we got caught up on what he has been up to since the last time we spoke.