“The Devil All The Time” by Donald Ray Pollock, or Good Lord, this is a bleak and depressing book …

I am going to buck the trends, and not join those who love this book.
There is much to like. Pollock’s prose is terrific, at times starkly poetic. The images are concise, and cutting, and won’t leave your head anytime soon. The man certainly can write.

And yet …

Damn, this is a depressing read. Set mostly in southern Ohio and West Virginia between World War II and the Vietnam era, the story is populated by a cast of very believable characters who seldom do or experience anything good. They move through a landscape of poverty and violence, killing, raping, beating, lying, drinking, brawling. The violence is ugly, and realistically portrayed; the reasons for it will make you weep for the human race. There is plenty of sex, also at times graphically portrayed, but nothing that could ever really be described as making love. 

There are a lot of characters, mostly evil or deluded. Only a few could be described as decent, and they all come to bad ends. The best outcome for anyone in this novel is losing everyone they care about in sickening, pointless ways.

Taken as individuals, each character seems an accurate portrayal of someone who might have lived and breathed and died in these rural areas. Tossed all together into one book, however, they leave the impression that decent people never lived in the southern Ohio hills or West Virgina mountains, at least not during the period depicted. One is left with the impression that the populace is entirely made up of whores, crooked cops, religious nuts, child-molesting preachers, gullible teen girls, twisted con men, murderers, alcoholics and brawlers.

This is not the case, of course. Having grown up not far from the Knockemstiff area, and having roots in West Virginia, I know there always have been hard-working people who abide by a faith that inspires them to be better people. Sure, those dark hills hide darker secrets, but there is light, too. Little of the beauty and spirit I know of the Appalachians and the Ohio hill country made it into Pollock’s book.

I think the fact that the novel’s multiple stories were woven through territory known to me is part of what kept me going; to be honest, I nearly quit a third of the way through because everything was so damned bleak. But the prose was wonderful, and familiar places kept popping up, so I kept reading.

At about the halfway point, the book grabbed me. Storylines started to intersect, some characters emerged who did not seem particularly hellbent on killing or conning their way though life, and I thought maybe someone would emerge from all the despair and violence with something resembling a soul intact.

Nah. Pollock ripped that hope away soon enough. “The Devil All The Time” certainly is an apt title. Nothing good comes of anything here.

I will read more Pollock. He is a storyteller, a wordsmith, a painter of images that cling to your mind. He writes scenes you can see, even though he describes them in few words. That is talent. So I will read more.

But I hope the other books allow at least a ray of hope to shine through now and then.

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