Tuesday 22 November 2011

'You just got to pick the right time'

The Devil All The Time
by Donald Ray Pollock

I didn't read Pollock's collection of stories, Knockemstiff, but after reading this, his first novel, I am sorely tempted. I was drawn in in the first place by the mention of Denis Johnson's name on the back cover quote and fan's of his writing and also that of Cormac McCarthy would be well advised to follow that lead. Pollock writes about a brutal world filled with physical and sexual violence, where life can be cheap and the chances to transcend it few and far between, but if you don't mind getting knocked about a bit and in fact find that there's something redemptive in the end about that kind of hard hitting fiction then whether you begin with novel or stories I think you may be in for a treat.

In a stunning prologue we follow Arvin Eugene Russell on a dismal October morning as he follows his father, Willard, through pasture and woods until they reach a clearing where the remains of a big red oak tree lies on its side.

Unless he had whiskey running through his veins, Willard came to the clearing every morning and evening to talk to God. Arvin didn't know which was worse, the drinking or the praying. As far back as he could remember, it seemed that his father had fought the Devil all the time.

Here at this 'prayer log' the two of them are disturbed by a couple of hunters, one of whom makes a few wisecracks about visiting Willard's wife whilst he's busy praying. Arvin is ashamed that his father continues his prayers and does nothing rather than standing up for himself as he had instructed Arvin to do in the face of some bullying on the school bus. But when later the two of them go for a ride to fill the truck with petrol he watches as his father comes across the two hunters, leaps out and beats the mouthy one senseless for a good couple of minutes before getting back into the truck.

"You remember what I told you the other day?" he asked Arvin.
"About them boys on the bus?"
"Well that's what I meant," Willard said, nodding over at the hunter..."You just got to pick the right time."
This becomes something of a maxim for Arvin who is the very thin cord that holds this novel together. Pollock has taken the approach favoured by many successful story writers, of creating characters with clear story arcs of their own and then tying them together. If we were being uncharitable we might accuse this novel of being little more than a series of stories tenuously linked together but how you fell about that might well depend on how integrated and whole you like a 'novel' to be. This is Ohio after Second World War, a semi rural community in the 1950's where relgion mixes with alcohol in competition for predminant pastime outside of work. WIllard has returned from the war traumatised to a degree by one thing in particular he saw while he was out there in the Pacific. Marriage and the beginning of a family bring him back to the world in part.
Sitting there watching his son, Willard suddenly had an intense desire to pray. Though he hadn't talked to God in years, not a single petition or word of praise since he'd come across the crucified marine during the war, he could feel it welling up inside him now, the urge to get right with his Maker before something bad happened to his family. But looking around the cramped apartment, he knew he couldn't get in touch with God here, no more than he'd ever been able to in a church. He was going to need some woods to worship his way.
But it will be a battle. Willard's fraught relationship with God will be tested by drink, disease and death; his search for 'peace and calm' constantly threatened. The personal relationship with God is one theme that unites the novel's characters and it will gve you an idea of the diversity of them if I mention quickly a pair of preachers, a serial-killing couple and a priest with a taste for young flesh.

Roy and Theodore are a curious double act, cousins who preach on the road where Roy speaks to the congregation and Theodore, confined to a wheelchair after drinking strychnine to prove his faith, accompanies him on guitar. The book's cover is adorned with the spiders Roy routinely pours over his head, to show how God cured him of his phobia, and which repay him occasionally with a nasty bite or two and accompanying infection. Theodore's paedophilia and Roy's increasingly extreme behaviour hustle them from one bad place to another. One moment of violence is so shocking because of the slow, inexorable build up to it and the innocence of the victim. As I said at the beginning, this is a brutal book which will not be for those of a sensitive disposition. I have my own qualm about it which I'll come to later.

Then we have Carl and Sandy, a pair of serial killers who use their frequent 'holidays' as cover for their murderous road trips. Carl is a photographer and Sandy, when she isn't selling her body out the back of the bar she works in is using it as bait to lure in the next victim. Whilst driving around they pick up hitch-hikers and slowly bring the conversation around to the idea of their passenger having sex with Sandy whilst Carl takes some photos. These pictures go on to document the men's deaths, something which the two of them have subtly different reactions to. It is never entirely clear why Sandy would go along with this way of life, apart from having little alternative and a seriously screwed up sense of her own self-worth. She gets satisfaction from the killing with some of them and from the sex with others. Carl meanwhile not only considers what he does art but also feels that the whole experience brings him closer to God.

To his way of thinking, it was the one true religion, the thing he'd been searching for all his life. Only in the presence of death could he feel the presence of something like God.

I mentioned that personal relationship with God as a unifying theme and it will come as no surprise that there is a pastor amongst the characters and he is just as deplorable as those characters who do not enjoy his elevated status. Preston Teagardin preys on his female congregation, particularly young girls, making it his mission to deflower them and his view of women as repositories for his lust, guilt and total disregard for women as anything other than objects makes him a truly horrific character. In a way perhaps only a man of the cloth can Teagardin gets off on his guilt finding that it is just this feeling that intensifies his connection to God, that gives it its drive and meaning.

To him such emotion proved that he still had a chance of going to heaven, regardless of how corrupt and cruel he might be, that is, if he repented his wretched, whoring ways before he took his last breath. It all came down to a matter of timing, which, of course, made things all that much more exciting.

All of these disparate characters are gradually linked together and a novel that has been filled with violence has a suitably bloody end. Pollock manages to make these deeply flawed and occasionally downright wicked characters more than just evil stereotypes. In fact you remain engaged and even occasionally entertained by them, the kind of complicity that makes you cringe every now and then that you are so enjoying reading about these horrific exploits. My one worry is about the portrayal of women. There isn't a single female character who isn't subjected to sexual violence, painful death or debasement of one kind or another apart from perhaps Arvin's grandmother, and even she is the one person left cleaning up the wreckage. I am always resistant to writers being accused of misogyny because a character of theirs has a misogynistic view but the hatred of women and the danger posed to them is so consistent in this book that I did feel a little uncomfortable about it by the end. Yes, Willard very much loves his wife and is driven to do some extraordinary things in order to prove that to God but it is that very fanaticism that ensures her death is as painful and degrading as it could possibly be. This aspect of the book is something that I am still wrestling with even whilst writing this review and it is not at all that I think it should stop anyone reading the book. On the contrary, it is the difficulty of that, and of the brutal world view of the novel in general that means I would recommend it, so as to be able to confront its demons head on and see whether we are prepared to accept or allow this vision of humanity.


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