One of my favorite things in the lovely spinning world is the opening title sequence for True Blood. Here, in case you haven’t seen it:
Notably missing from the opening is Sookie Stackhouse herself, who is a bouncy ray of sunshine, and all of the other Bon Temps residents who come with hearts of gold. The video drags you through a combination of profound religious devotion and equally profound depravity while the effects tint the visuals with sun-drenched dust and noise. I think if I tell you that reading The Devil All the Time is like a book-length version of that ninety-second sensory orgasm, you will want to read it. But there’s more to it that.
Many thanks to Doubleday for the review copy.Arvin Russell grows up in Knockemstiff Holler in rural Ohio with his parents, the beautiful Charlotte and devout Willard. When Willard came home from World War II, he hid the stories of the atrocities he had witnessed. But as Arvin grows older, he learns how to fight from Willard, who does not seem to extend his religious devotion to allowing God to punish those who trespass against him. When Charlotte develops cancer, Willard (by now a problem drinker) turns to prayer and disturbing ritual to try to save her.
After a time jump, Arvin is living with his grandmother Emma in West Virginia, in another rural community. He’s a teenager now, scarred by his childhood, quiet but given to explosions of violence just like Willard had been. Emma is also raising Lenora, the daughter of a murdered woman. Lenora, an awkward teen often mocked by classmates, brings out the protective instincts Arvin learned from his father’s devotion to his mother. The West Virginia sections of the book also introduce us to preacher Roy Laferty, who eats spiders during his service while his wheelchair-bound cousin Theodore accompanies him on the guitar.
Back in Ohio, Carl Henderson waits for his wife Sandy’s two-week vacation from work. Carl’s passion is photography, and when he and Sandy get the chance they hit the road with camera and film. Of course, then they pick up hitchhikers, Carl offers Sandy’s favors in exchange for some explicit pictures, and then murders their night’s model. A few miles down the road, they’ll find another one. By the time Donald Ray Pollock draws all these characters together in the last pages of his novel, they have all been pushed past personal breaking points into primal desperation.
The Devil All the Time is set in a world where pleasure is almost foreign, something for people who don’t live where these characters do. Sex is cheap, life is short and brutal, and the hope of some salvation after death is the only reason to keep drawing breath. It’s simultaneously stylish and plain-spoken, almost rawboned in its structure but told with a keen enough eye to hint at Pollock’s sense of humor. Enough work went into it to make it feel effortless.
This is probably not the sort of book you can picture me recommending based on the other books I’ve reviewed here. But I do, I really do recommend it if this description intrigues you. It is an unbelievably dark book, and if you’re looking for something to dip into idly that won’t stay with you the rest of the day, maybe this isn’t right for you after all. This book spoke to me, though. It was an immersion into a world I could never have imagined and people whose morality is defined by completely different rules than my own. By the end of The Devil All the Time love feels like an alien concept, something outside of survival instead of intrinsic to it. Somehow, it made me crave it more.
The Devil All the Time | Donald Ray Pollock
Doubleday (July 12, 2011)