Donald Ray Pollock's over-the-top gothic

Biblical fury
By CHARLES TAYLOR  |  July 6, 2011

donald ray pollock headshot
DAMNED! Pollock goes for an Old Testament sensibility in which sin is paid for in blood, though not
necessarily absolved.

Donald Ray Pollock's first novel is called The Devil All the Time, and that's exactly what's wrong with it. Borrowing from sources both good (Flannery O'Connor, Jim Thompson) and lousy (that portentous tumbleweed tumbler Cormac McCarthy), the novel contains no moment when we are not meant to feel the hot breath of damnation on the backs of the characters' red, dirty necks. And so nothing stands out except Pollock's unceasing need to impress us with his unrelieved grimness and puerility.

This is the type of book in which a character's trip to the outhouse will not only include a detailed account of the state of the outhouse but a detailed account of the success — or lack thereof — of said character's efforts inside it. Pollock may think a sentence like "Nowadays, fucking her was like sticking his staff in a greasy, soulless donut" expresses the sexual sadism of a character, but the sentence deflects the focus so that we recoil from the physical fact of the sadist's victim. After a while, it's all the same — the character cleaning his toenails with a knife and spreading the gleanings on a bench, a male hitchhiker tortured to death, a cripple fellating a circus clown. In its dried-out way, the novel employs the grossness in the same manner as a scatological comedy or torture-porn horror movie, but does so a lot less honestly because of its self-conscious pretensions to literature.

The Devil All the Time is a picaresque Midwestern gothic in which the strands of the stories work their way together. The closest thing the novel has to a hero is Arvin, whom we follow from boyhood, praying with his father over the animal sacrifices the man makes to save his wife, Arvin's mother, from a hideous death by cancer. There are the traveling husband-and-wife serial killers; the cousins who take their guitar-playing and spider-eating act from a revival tent to a circus; the homely God-fearing young woman who winds up the victim of a lay preacher's conviction that he can bring the dead to life, and her daughter, who winds up with another religious fanatic. The locale is the same section of rural Ohio that formed the setting for Pollock's collection of short stories, Knockmestiff.

Much has been made of the "authenticity" of Pollock's background as a paper-mill worker, but that doesn't make what's on the page any more believable. At first I thought The Devil All the Time was one of those works, like Winter's Bone or Precious, that wallows in ignorance, squalor, and pathology and presents it all as a sign of realism, thus allowing the audiences who respond to feel concerned while holding the characters at a distance like specimens under the microscope.

What Pollock has in mind, though, is closer to Old Testament judgment in which sin is paid for in blood, though not necessarily absolved. You'll have no trouble seeing these characters as damned. But when you try to figure out what about them is worth saving, your mind draws a blank. And the antecedents Pollock calls to mind redound to his debit. He has neither the hard, certain Old Testament judgment that burns so strong in Flannery O'Connor nor the compassion lurking beneath the surface grotesquerie of Warren Zevon's "Play It All Night Long." Instead, Pollock just gives us parable as freak show.

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  Topics: Books , Books, Book Reviews, Cormac McCarthy,  More more >
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