The Devil All the Time, Donald Ray Pollock has written a novel that marries the twisted intensity of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers with the religious and Gothic overtones of Flannery O’Connor at her most haunting.
Set in rural southern Ohio and West Virginia, The Devil All the Time follows a cast of compelling and bizarre characters from the end of World War II to the 1960s. There’s Willard Russell, tormented veteran of the carnage in the South Pacific, who can’t save his beautiful wife, Charlotte, from an agonizing death by cancer no matter how much sacrificial blood he pours on his “prayer log.” There’s Carl and Sandy Henderson, a husband-and-wife team of serial killers, who troll America’s highways searching for suitable models to photograph and exterminate. There’s the spider-handling preacher Roy and his crippled virtuoso-guitar-playing sidekick, Theodore, running from the law. And caught in the middle of all this is Arvin Eugene Russell, Willard and Charlotte’s orphaned son, who grows up to be a good but also violent man in his own right.
Donald Ray Pollock braids his plotlines into a taut narrative that will leave readers astonished and deeply moved. With his first novel, he proves himself a master storyteller in the grittiest and most uncompromising American grain.
In the movie 'The Usual Suspects' the character Verbal says that 'The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist. And like that, poof. He's gone.' There is no personified devil in Donald Ray Pollock's The Devil All the Time and there doesn't need to be. Many of the characters in his new novel do just fine on their own in seeking out and dispensing evil. In the Rolling Stones' song 'Sympathy for the Devil' Mick Jagger sings of a world where 'All the cops are criminals and all the sinners saints.' This is the world that the book's young hero, Arvin Eugene Russell, must navigate if he is to escape a horrible past and an equally horrible present. The novel's setting is the backwoods border area of West Virginia and Ohio sometime between 1945 to 1965. These are not, however, the woods of Bambi and Thumper, unless you were to find them strung up on a tree dripping sacrificial blood onto a 'prayer log.'
I do hope the book's title or the words I've written don't scare you away from what I believe is a superbly written American gothic tale. The author deftly interweaves the lives of unforgettable characters such as a soldier who's seen way too much, a would-be Bonnie and Clyde with a predilection for snuff pornography, a dense preacher and his crippled guitarist, and the new preacher in town more interested in teenage girls than the bible. What's a young man to do when it's the devil all the time? For Arvin Russell, a walk through hell is ordinary. Finding his way out is another matter altogether. Enjoy this wonderful novel, but watch your step in the scary backwoods and by all means do not accept rides from strangers.