I haven’t read Donald Ray Pollock’s short story collection, Knockemstiff, but I hear it’s good. I can believe it. His first novel, The Devil All The Time (to be released in July), is plain old down and dirty storytelling: there’s no metaphor to decode, no verbosity to slog through, no cute post-postmodern chapter titles, no gratuitous or tiring description. He has characters, and he has a story, and he tells it.
This style very much suits the setting of the novel – the hardscrabble backwoods of Ohio and West Virginia, from the end of WWII through the 1960’s. Like Pollock, the characters he creates are no bullshit. They do their jobs, they hate their wives, they drink whiskey, and sometimes they kill people. Actually, they kill people a lot of the time.
There’s Emma, the older woman raising two orphaned kids after her own suffers a grisly fate; Lenora, the abandoned daughter of the phony preacher Roy, and Helen, the wife he killed; Lee, the shady cop, and his sister Sandy, a bartender enslaved by her husband Carl, the murderer. You get the idea.
It’s not all killing. There are moments of crushing humility, but these are reserved for the women. Emma and Lenora both have their hearts shattered by the same repulsive pedophile preacher. Sandy realizes, too late, that things might have been different for her.
The men, however, never seem to have to come to terms with themselves, but I think that says something not incongruous to the time and place of the book. It feels right that the men do the killing and the women do the suffering, annoying as that may be.
Intriguingly, the male character with the most fully fleshed out inner life (and arguably the most interesting character, too) is also the “worst” person in the novel: Carl.
To Carl, the mundane is anathema, and so he murders people. “To his way of thinking, it was the one true religion, the thing he’d been searching for his whole life. Only in the presence of death could he feel the presence of something like God.”
Killing is simple. What’s perplexing for Carl are the more banal life questions we all have to answer for ourselves: those of commitment, fidelity, boredom, sexuality, fate. He sees the plain, flat truth of life as it is for most people, and he can’t bear it.
“The truck stopped with a lurch a few yards away, and a middle-aged, gaunt-faced man got out. He wore a pair of dark suit pants and a white shirt, scuffed black dress shoes. Probably been stuck in church all morning, sitting by his fat-ass old lady, Carl thought. Getting ready to eat some fried chicken now, take a nap if the old bag would shut her mouth for a few minutes. Then back to work in the morning, hard at it. You had to almost admire someone who had the wherewithal to stick with something like that.”
The novel has its weaknesses. The point of view shifts far too often, and sometimes for no good reason. You may find two or three POV shifts in one paragraph, and this technique does not achieve intimacy, but rather its opposite: by spending such short, erratic bursts of time with each character, we don’t get to know any of them very well. I haven’t even mentioned Arvin, the supposed main character, but that’s because he feels peripheral in the midst of all these other points of view.
Curiously, what’s most lacking in this novel about violence is any actual violence. We know that Sandy and Carl torture, kill, and perform appalling sexual acts on innocent young men, and we know (for the most part) why they do it. But we don’t see them do it. We watch as they lure these boys into their car, hear them execute the well rehearsed set-up, and then cut to, ”After they carried and dragged the Amy boy’s naked body a few yards into the woods and rolled it under some bushes heavy with purple berries…”
Why do we care about the purple berries when we’ve just been denied the main action of the scene? We know that killing people is the only time Carl feels alive, but since we never actually witness him killing anyone, we never get to see or hear from Carl when he’s most alive, and that’s regrettable. Likewise, we’re told that the pictures he takes of his victims with Sandy play a crucial role in their relationship, but the pictures are never actually described, and so we’re denied a chance to see their actual effect on the characters.
Both of these things – the arbitrary POV shifts, and the tendency to avoid describing the action -feel like laziness, or else an inability of the author to stay present with his characters for some other reason. Unfortunately, this has the effect of making the reader largely impervious: we find out that Lee is an even sketchier cop than we’d thought, but since we never see him commit the crimes he alludes to, we don’t much care about them. And near the end of the book, when Roy suddenly becomes possessed by the idea of getting home to his grown daughter, whom he hasn’t seen since he murdered her mother, we’re not sure why. We haven’t spent enough time in his head to know if this daughter has been there all along, silently guiding him, compelling him to be a better person, as I suspect Pollock would like us to infer.
These things make for a weakish novel, but the story itself — and Pollock is a storyteller if nothing else — is still excellent (which is why I’m sure Knockemstiff is as solid as I’m told). I have a soft spot for writers who don’t pacify, and Pollock certainly doesn’t: his characters in The Devil All The Time show us, in a myriad of horrifying ways, that sometimes life is shit, and nothing gets better. There’s no happy ending. I appreciate that. I just wish we wouldn’t spare us the gritty details, either. We can handle them.
Morgan Macgregor is a reader and blogger living in Los Angeles. She likes contemporary American fiction and talking about it. Probably because she’s Canadian.