three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
55-Nov-Dec-2011
user_rating: 
0

A-The Devil All the TimeDonald Ray Pollock worked in a paper mill for 32 years before joining the Ohio State MFA program. His first collection of short stories, Knockemstiff (4 of 5 Stars May/June 2008), won the 2009 PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship. Pollock now returns with his first novel, a Southern gothic.

The Story: Willard Russell, a World War II veteran, returns to his native backwoods Ohio from the Pacific theater. Soon, he settles down, marries Charlotte, and has a son, Arvin. The fa├žade of a happy home life soon disintegrates: Russell goes insane, Charlotte dies, and Arvin goes to live with his grandmother in West Virginia. Arvin finds himself constantly battling for survival in a locale filled with violence, squalor, prostitution, and death. As he matures--the novel follows him through the 1960s--Arvin meets a large number of bizarre characters, from religious zealots to serial killers to pedophiles, all with a penchant for violence and horror.
Doubleday. 252 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780385535045

Elle 4 of 5 Stars
"The God-fearing hard-luck characters who populate Donald Ray Pollock's debut novel, The Devil All the Time, move through the southern outlands of Ohio and the isolated hollows of West Virginia like figures in a collective nightmare of poverty, addiction, superstition, and crime. ... The flawless cadence of Pollock's gorgeous shadow-and-light prose plays against the heinous acts of his sorrowful and sometimes just sorry characters." Lisa Shea

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Pollack has] layered decades of history, shown the inner thoughts of a collage of characters, and we understand how deeply violence and misfortune have settled into the bones of this place. The question is much more than whether someone will die--it is, can the cycle of bloodletting break?" Carolyn Kellogg

USA Today 3.5 of 5 Stars
"At its best, it invites comparisons to Flannery O'Connor and Raymond Carver, who mined the grace and guilt in the hopeless lives of lost souls. ... Midway through the novel, my interest lagged in the serial killers, but never in the orphan, Arvin Russell, at the heart of the book. Like Pollock, he makes the most of a few well-chosen words." Bob Minzesheimer

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"The West Virginia and southern Ohio landscapes of this book seem riven by one long, coal-smeared and hell-harrowed gash in the earth, and the stories that vent from it file past in a crimson procession of evils so brutally creative, and so exactingly and lovingly detailed by Pollock, that over the course of the novel it becomes unclear whether they've been spawned for the purposes of plot or purely for atavistic pleasure. ... In the end, The Devil All the Time offers up its characters only as sacrifices. To what, or for what, we, and perhaps Pollock himself, are never quite sure." Josh Ritter

Oregonian 3 of 5 Stars
"The Devil All the Time reads as if the love child of O'Connor and Faulkner was captured by Cormac McCarthy, kept in a cage out back and forced to consume nothing but onion rings, Oxycontin and Terrence Malick's Badlands. ... The novel pulls the plot strands together in a satisfying, almost redemptive way, yet it's hard to shake the feeling that too much was included for shock value, or because the author was winking while maintaining a straight face." Jeff Baker

Onion AV Club 3 of 5 Stars
"[Pollack's] prose is brutal and elegant, making The Devil All the Time distressingly easy to read, in spite of the torture its characters endure. ... [The novel] is literary fiction as torture-porn, where righteous revenge killings are the only form of hope." Rowan Kaiser

Critical Summary

A novel that features murder, religious zealotry, pedophilia, and death in such a prominent manner was sure to divide critics, and The Devil All the Time certainly did so. Almost every reviewer lauded Pollock's sparse yet vivid prose and compared him to the finest Southern gothic novelists, and many noted the ease with which the novel's often calamitous events swept them up. It is these events, however, that concerned many critics. Several reviewers felt that the violence and murder perhaps went too far, detracting from the novel's overall purpose. Others went even further, stating that the violence found in The Devil All the Time bordered on pointless gratuity. But for those with an iron stomach, the novel is worth the read.