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The Devil All the Time, Donald Ray Pollock

Doubleday, July 12, 2011

“It’s hard to live a good life,” he said. “It seems like the Devil don’t ever let up.”

They’re praying for rain in Arkansas, and they aren’t the only ones. The miserable U.S. drought, ill-timed in the current economic depression, was hurting everyone: farmers, consumers, even politicians. And while a rain dance—praying to the gods for relief—is one thing, it sure gets scary when you hear talk of voices going off inside heads, voices that apparently have the authority to make life-changing decisions, tipping the scales of spirituality in those afflicted with even just a little touch of the crazy.

The way she saw it, too much religion could be as bad as too little, maybe even worse; but moderation was just not in her husband’s nature.

In Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All the Time, the crazy and evil are not in short supply. These are the Devil’s backroads, the Devil’s woods, the Devil’s alter that we have stumbled upon.

“If your worst fear is rats, then Satan will make sure you get your fill of ’em. Brothers and sisters, they’ll chew your face off while you lay there unable to lift a single finger against them, and it won’t ever cease. A million years in eternity ain’t even an afternoon here in Coal Creek.”

In these parts, skeletons hide in many a closet, while even more hole up in unmarked graves. This place is grim, pure evil, so ominous and dank in fact that you would be excused if you didn’t see any flicker of light or hope at all in this wicked wicked tale. You would be pardoned if you didn’t come to see the novel’s path to redemption in the plight of a young boy, Arvin, but instead choose to see just another tainted character who is easy prey in the Devil’s game. But a boy is just a boy, and it seems impossible not to have at least a little empathy toward someone so young who is forced to come to terms with things better reserved for those well beyond his years, if better reserved for anyone at all.

He went out on the porch and sat in his mother’s rocking chair and watched the evening sun sink behind the row of evergreens west of the house. He thought about her first night under the ground. How dark it must be there. He’d overheard an old man standing off under a tree leaning on a shovel telling Willard that death was either a long journey or a long sleep, and though his father had scowled and turned away, Arvin thought that sounded all right. He hoped for his mother’s sake that it was a little of both.

And even if you are like me, inclined to err on the side of hope against all odds, still the specter that young Arvin will keep his hands clean in a place like this seems optimistic at best. Accordingly, Arvin’s story feels like bait: the bait of a payoff of good over evil, the bait of redemption, and in keeping within the story’s biblical connotation, maybe even the bait of eternal salvation. With stakes like these, it is easy to understand why hope and prayer are things worth holding on to.

He finally gave up, found it easier to imagine his parents looking down on him instead. It seemed as if his entire life, everything he’d ever seen or said or done, had led up to this moment: alone at last with the ghosts of his childhood. He began to pray, the first time since his mother had died. “Tell me what to do,” he whispered several times. After a couple of minutes, a sudden gust of wind came down off the hill behind him, and some of the bones still hanging in the trees began to knock together like wind chimes.

While any southern gothic tale is more than likely to reveal its fair share of horrors, none are more disturbing than the sacrifices of innocents—both animal and human. Even Pollock himself doesn’t shy away from the practice, lining up his characters for the slaughter, metaphorically and literally. Blind faith can make people do crazy-ass things.

Only in the presence of death could he feel the presence of something like God.

Armies shed blood, even torture, all in the name of a good that they insist is Holy. But even priests are led astray by secret agendas, human frailty, or worse. Parishioners often barter with their Lord, adhering to laws of morality that should be otherwise inherent in exchange for promises of immortality and entry into The Kingdom.

The priest was sick of all the death he’d seen, all the prayers he’d said over rows of dead soldiers and piles of body parts. He told Willard that if even half of history was true, then the only thing this depraved and corrupt world was good for was preparing you for the next.

If things this horrible can happen in this life, it sure could get a person wondering. Maybe even losing a little faith. And when that happens, what comes next is anybody’s guess.