The Devil All the Time

Written by Donald Ray Pollock
Review by John Kachuba

Pollock returns to southern Ohio, the setting for his collection of short stories, Knockemstiff, and unleashes a bizarre and compelling cast of characters whose seemingly diverse stories eventually weave together in a gritty, brutal fashion.

The story begins with Willard Russell, just returned from the horrors of combat in the South Pacific during World War II. He marries Charlotte, a pretty waitress he met while passing through Meade, Ohio, on a Greyhound bus taking him home to West Virginia. He teaches their only child, Arvin, to stand up to bullies, but Willard himself is unable to stand up to the cancer that is slowly killing his wife, no matter how much he prays, no matter how many animals he sacrifices at his altar in the woods. When his mother dies and Willard has gone mad, Arvin is sent to live with his grandmother, Emma.

Emma is also caring for Leonora, a timid, religious girl whose mother was murdered by her father, Roy, a crazy preacher who was sure he could revive his wife from the grave.

The novel just gets crazier. Roy has fled the state with his crippled, guitar-playing cousin, Theodore, and they eventually wind up in a circus sideshow. There’s a corrupt sheriff whose sister Sandy and her perverted serial killer husband, Carl, cruise the interstates looking for male hitchhiker “models” to photograph and exterminate, a holy-roller preacher who indulges in private religious lessons for the young women in his flock, and other assorted misfits.

This is not a novel for those with delicate sensibilities, but fans of Flannery O’Connor will appreciate the raw, no-holds-barred story that, in the end, offers long-suffering Arvin Russell a break.