Reading The Devil All the Time is like watching P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia, but instead of your characters yearning for new, misplaced, or rediscovered love, the residents of Donald Ray Pollock’s sophomore novel are only looking to murder, betray, or fuck (both literally and metaphorically). Like the aforementioned film, the characters of Devil are all connected in some way, and most of those ties are built on something depraved and awful. The novel drips with blood, violence, sex, and everything else that makes Pollock's world go around.
The first character we meet is Willard Russell, a veteran of World War II on his way home, memories of his fellow soldiers crucified by the enemies in the South Pacific still weighing heavily in his mind. Despite this morbid recollection, Willard meets a pretty waitress in a diner – and knows on the spot that she will become his wife. It’s a pleasant and even romantic way to begin a novel that soon devolves into acts of depravity perpetrated against both the innocent and the deserving: Animals – even childhood pets – are nailed to crosses in a half-cocked offering to the gods. Hitchhikers are forced to participate in a psychosexual photo shoot, spearheaded by a completely conscienceless couple. Lives are taken for little to no reason.
Taking place in both West Virginia and a charming-sounding town called Knockemstiff, Ohio (both the title and setting of Pollock’s other work – a short story collection), the story spans several years and mostly follows the growing son of Willard Russell, a boy named Arvin who as a child suffered through his father’s mental breakdown after his mother began slowly dying.
While not every character in Devil is a complete sociopath, those that show acts of kindness and grace are quickly punished with a life-shattering occurrence—the death of a loved one, the manipulation of love, or a life of isolation. In Pollock’s world, there is no hope and no love, and if there is a God, he simply doesn’t care.
The chapters are short for what’s most assuredly an adult read—so short in fact that in the book’s 290-something page count, there are over fifty chapters. While I’m sure this was to carry on with the book’s vignette-like depiction, I’m sure it was also to give the reader a break. I doubt there is one sole chapter in the book where a character does not perform an act of evil against another human being, or reflect on one previously committed—and that character’s lack of humane reaction to it.
The Devil All the Time is certainly not for everyone, but for those who aren’t scared of lifting the veil and staring hard into the darker side of life, the journey to Knockemstiff is terribly and disgustingly rewarding.