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Wednesday, 07 March 2012 13:58

Taking a trip down dark, violent passages

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This novel contains an endorsement from the late William Gay that tweaked my interest. I immediately bought the book. Gay says, “The Devil All the Time hits you like a telegram from Hell slid under your door at three o’clock in the morning.” Another review concluded that reading Pollock’s novel was like “reading Flannery O”Conner without the Catholicism.” What we have here, then, is the existential landscape of the “Southern Gothic” joined with the mindless brutality of “Natural Born Killers.” If you are a reader who looks for novels that are spiritually uplifting and are designed to reflect hope and redemptive themes, then you should avoid The Devil All the Time as if its pages were impregnated with the Ebola virus.

Pollock’s characters are often terrifying; other times, they possess a pathetic innocence ... the kind that renders them hapless victims. Here are some of his most arresting and memorable characters: The duo, Brother Roy Lafferty and Brother Theodore Daniels, spread the word of God in the Coal Creek Holiness Church Sanctified in Meade, Ohio (circa l950s). The Rev. Roy keeps the attention of his audience by throwing handfuls of poisonous spiders into the congregation.  Brother Theodore, confined to a wheelchair since he swallowed a dose of strychnine in one of the Rev’s Roy’s revivals, plays the guitar. Alarmed by a steady decrease in his congregation, the Rev. Roy decides to promote himself with a miracle ... raising the dead. Brother Theodore suggests that Roy should kill his new wife and “bring her back.” The Rev. Roy does just that ... or tries. The religious duo buries the dead girl and depart ... allegedly for Mexico.

Willard Russell, a psychologically scarred WWII veteran, returns to Meade after the war, marries and struggles to make a life for his wife and son, Arvin. When his wife gets cancer, Willard launches an impassioned appeal to God to save his wife. At first he conducts marathon praying sessions at a “prayer log” in the woods, but gradually he begins to bring sacrifices to the prayer log — rabbits, squirrels, butchered hunting dogs ... all of which he hangs on wooden crosses or from the branches of trees. When his wife’s condition grows worse, he decides to bring a human sacrifice to his prayer log and murders his landlord, an unpleasant, greedy lawyer (who has offered to give Willard his rented shack if Willard will kill the lawyer’s unfaithful wife and her lover).

When his wife dies, the distraught Willard decides to make the ultimate sacrifice, cuts his own throat and leaves behind a 9-year-old, Arvin, who becomes the central character in The Devil All the Time. When Arvin leads the local sheriff, Lee Bodecker, to the prayer log and his father’s body, the bewildered law officer stares at the decaying sacrifices hanging in the trees and asks the boy, “What the hell is this?”

“A prayer log,” says Arvin, “but it don’t work.”

Then there are Carl and Sandy, a grotesque couple who have a secret life as “self-styled serial murderers.” On weekends, they troll the side roads of surrounding states, looking for “models” ... young hitchhikers. Sandy is the “bait,” who seduces the young men; Carl is the photographer who records the encounter and then tortures and murders the victims. For Carl, all of this is controlled by some spiritual and/or religious force that directs him to his victims by secret signs and clues. During the week, the couple operates a tavern in Meade where Sandy’s brother is Sheriff Bodecker.

At this point, approximately one-third of the way into this surreal and hypnotic novel, when the narrative is acquiring the rocking speed of a souped-up roadster with a gutted muffler, it’s time to cease revealing the action and make a few observations on this novel’s merits. Instead of launching an all-out attack on the “shameful depiction of Southern degeneracy,” I feel constrained to note that this is a brilliant novel. In some ways it is similar to the cult film, “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus,” by Andrew Douglas, which presents the rural South as a place in which “Christ, mysticism, superstition and the yin-yang forces of the sacred and the profane combine, creating a delicate blend of the real and the unreal, the known and the unknown.”

For those who live in the rural south, especially in the impoverished and remote areas, there are only two choices. “Choose Jesus or choose hell.” Readers who are familiar with the geography will readily recognize Meade, Ohio, since it has hundreds of clones. “A little paper mill town ... that smelled like rotten eggs. Strangers complained about the stench, but the locals like to brag about the sweet smell of money.” As Pollock catalogs Meade’s recreational opportunities, which seem to be limited to attending church, visiting the funeral home or consuming a case of beer on the back porch, many readers may feel an eerie sense of the familiar. Pollock moves with confidence through swamps, “school bus-littered junkyards and off-the-highway bars where drugs, sex and Pentecostal passions freely mingle.”

This is the natural habitat of Pollock’s characters. They are shaped and molded by dark, immutable forces which compel them to either go on mystical quests or murderous rampages. It is a place where the devout and the demonic constantly intersect. Billboards and rustic signs proclaim “Jesus is Coming,” and the local denizens readily admit either a reverence for heaven or a fondness for hell.

It may well be that many potential readers will be repulsed by the violence and otherworldly spirituality of The Devil All the Time. However, if a few thoughtful souls find a disturbing power in these stories of death and heartbreak, I would like to urge you to type this magical mantra into your Google: “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.”  Spend a little time with Andrew Douglas on YouTube in the company of Harry Crews, Tin Finger and a collection of deranged misfits who have looked into the core of their being and found both lyric beauty and terror.

 

The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock. Doubleday, 2012. 251 pages.

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