The Short Version: Arvin Russell watches his mother die despite his father’s best prayers and then loses his father shortly thereafter. He grows up as several other characters – a corrupt sheriff, a preacher and his demented brother, a young orphan girl, a sadistic serial killer couple – from that fateful area known as Knockemstiff spiral towards an inevitable horrible conclusion.
The Review: This book was one of the second-tier reads from last season’s Tournament of Books. I’m not trying to say that I wasn’t interested in it – but it didn’t scream out to me from the start (despite the intriguing title). I finally picked up a copy when it dropped in paperback but I let it sit, figuring it was a good autumn book. But October passed and the weather got strange and I found myself floundering for something to read after the BookClub book. So I just grabbed this and said “to hell with it.”
Which is rather the right state of mind for Pollock’s writing, I think. He’s a kindred spirit to the Coen Brothers’ darker side(s) or to the gritty awfulness of the reality of Cormac McCarthy’s novels. He doesn’t plumb the depths as well as McCarthy – there’s no soul-crushing bleakness here, just… general bleakness – but he certainly gets pretty horrifying as he tries. And lord, does he try often.
The novel’s prologue ends with a shocking sudden act of violence, recounted without adornment – and that sets the tone for the rest of the book, although the jolt fades after the first section of the novel. Actually, a lot of things fade after the first section. There’s a sense of horror in the first section, as the young Arvin and his father try to pray for his mother’s safe return to health. I’m talking true horror, the type that sits in your gut and makes you feel a little queasy. There are many equally grisly moments throughout the rest of the novel but I will not soon forget the image of the prayer log, surrounded by the carcasses of dead animals with the ground so saturated from blood that you sink into it. I legitimately gasped at the end of one chapter when Willard thinks “there was one thing he hadn’t tried yet. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of it earlier.” – because I knew exactly what was coming. EXACTLY. And yet it was still shocking and surprising and “oh my god this is really happening”.
And yet, I lost some of that feeling as the book went on. I wouldn’t say that I grew numb to the particular experience of reading this book – although I do believe that I, in general, this book made me confront the reality that I am becoming numb to certain depictions of torture & sadism in literature. All those crime novels, I guess; it’s hard to not get a little numb when you’re reading the Nordic crime guys. But I think the vivid, visceral feeling provoked by the early chapters is a sign that I can still be genuinely horrified by the actions of ordinary people: it’s just that the writing needs to get me there. And I felt like Pollock’s writing gets a bit unfocused towards the end of the story. It’s relatively obviously how the disparate stories are going to come together by the end, so it’s very much about the journey to that ending – and here, I simply felt like it was a little messy, a little slapdash, a little hurried but also lackadaisical. I found myself less-than-interested in the story of the preacher (who started off as such an interesting and dynamic character), let alone his brother. The serial killer couple was downright boring by the end. And the sheriff felt a bit undercooked as a character in general. Arvin was the only truly dynamic figure, seeing as we watched him grow up and embrace the hard-knock reality that we genuinely hope he’ll manage to escape.
Still, Pollock’s earlier book – set in Knockemstiff called, yep, Knockemstiff – was a short story collection and I’m curious to check it out because the pulse exists in The Devil All The Time in short bursts. You can feel the short-story-writer in Pollock’s pen, but you can also feel the dangerous nullity that comes from drawing out a short story for too long. The story of the serial killers, on its own, would’ve made a killer short story (pun totally intended). But here, it just feels a bit bloated (not unlike several characters in this novel! pun also intended!) and so there were moments where my interest waned. There were also moments, though, that grabbed me by the throat and forced me to watch them, in a way that only truly fantastic writers can acheive.
Rating: 4 out of 5. I’m being a little generous here and I’m bumping my rating up higher than perhaps it should be based on promise: both the promise of the author at large and the promise of the novel as set up by the first 50 or so pages. While the novel squanders some of that promise by the time it peters out (I shouldn’t say that – it gallops pretty fast there at the end), I genuinely don’t think the same will prove true for Pollock. He’s writing about a slightly simpler time and about the evils that men do – in the name of God, in the name of love, in the name of lust. There ain’t a single righteous soul in this book except maybe a few of the women and they don’t really last too long. The violence is as human and sharp as No Country For Old Men and that’s only a positive thing. But the overall effect is somewhat lacking – John Warner’s commentary on the novel during its ToB run in 2012 was spot-on.