The Awful World Beyond: The TFT Review Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All the Time
Let me confess to a common disappointment. Once or twice a year a short story writer I admire publishes a novel, and, sucker that I am, I pre-order it, pick up my copy on the appointed day, take it home, and read it in one sitting. I’m hoping to fall in love with the novel the way I fell in love with the short stories, and even though short story writers have disappointed me again and again, I think maybe this time it will be different. This time the writer whose stories sent a hundred tiny nurses under my skin to dole out the opiates will have a hundred more nurses at the ready.
Since reading has become my primary pleasure, the stakes are already sky-high in these moments, and never higher than the day I picked up my copy of Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All the Time, because the book of stories that preceded it—the much-lauded Knockemstiff—is among the most important books of my reading life. I keep it on the shelf beside my copies of Jesus’ Son, American Pastoral, The Shawl, and so on. The binding is getting worn. (And, a second complication—full disclosure—Pollock is a real-life friend.)
And the things that distinguish Knockemstiff as a collection of short stories are things that aren’t necessarily virtues that are portable to the novel form, or at least not easily so. For one thing, the stories in Knockemstiff—eighteen of them in a 203-page book—are marvels of compression. Most run to eight or ten pages. The shortest, “Bactine,” is six-and-a-half, and the longest, “Knockemstiff,” is only fifteen. I was going to write that taken one at a time, they feel alternately like a jab to the face, a left cross, an uppercut, a kick to the groin, a couple of whacks to the stomach with a wrench, the sharp blade of a knife to the throat. That’s the kind of talk critics have been talking ever since the book came out. And it’s not untrue talk. It privileges the languaged-up violent surfaces that are Knockemstiff’s most immediately apparent virtue. Take, for example, the now-notorious opening sentence to “Dynamite Hole,” a passage Pollock often read to audiences of tuxedoed women and men wearing bridal gowns, while on tour with Chuck Palahniuk: “I was coming down off the Mitchell Flats with three arrowheads in my pocket and a dead copperhead hung around my neck like an old woman’s scarf when I caught a boy named Truman Mackey fucking his own little sister in the Dynamite Hole.” That’s tractor-beam prose, and it’s fun to quote, and it’s easy to quote, and the energy of it flatters the critic who quotes it—I got a little bit of a rush right now just typing it, feeling it go through my head and through my fingers and appear on a page that has my name up at the top.
If I summarized it, I might start by telling you how the first-person narrator, who lives in an abandoned school bus, first watches the brother and sister play a sex game wherein they periodically throw their hands in the air, yell, “Jesus, save me!,” fall backward into the hole, laugh, and get at it again. But I might leave out what makes the story really special—what distinguishes it from the pleasing-enough shock pulp of Big Jim Thompson or James M. Cain—which is that the narrator looks at what they’re doing, gets a little angry at first at the sacrilege (even though, as he tells us, his family was never particularly religious), then reconsiders in a way that is equal parts innocent and self-serving: “the longer I laid there and watched them, the more I talked myself into believing that they’d just found their own little way of praying, and that maybe they really did want the Savior or even somebody else to come down and wipe away their sins.” What he does next is “hold that dead copperhead up to my lips and [kiss] it the same way I’d seen men kiss their women in their bedrooms at night,” and here we have a sense of many insights at once: 1. This is a lonely person, 2. This is a creepy guy who has been peeping in bedrooms at night, 3. This guy is innocent enough to think that if he tells us the truth, we will understand him, 4. This guy is self-aware enough to know that there is something wrong with him, 5. This guy has serious impulse control problems, 6. This guy has probably never kissed a woman, 7. This guy is kissing a poisonous snake that he has probably just killed, 8. This guy is probably going to try to get involved in the incestuous situation that is inflaming him, and 9. It’s probably going to end badly for all concerned.
Reader, it does. He kills the brother with a club, threatens the sister with the dead snake, rapes her while she cries and whimpers, and strangles her when she tries to get away. And that’s where the pulp story would end, but “Dynamite Hole” is only a little more than halfway done. The story turns right around the time he’s deep in remembrance of the day he did his worst: “I’d never been inside a real person before, and when I started to finish, it was like everything I’d ever known didn’t matter no more. All the hard years and the loneliness flowed out of me and bubbled up inside that little girl like a wet spring coming out of the side of a hill. I still had the snake around me, and I held it up and shook it at the sun and cried out, ‘Jesus, save me!’ . . .” Here is where one horror ends and a new one begins. Now the speaker begins to weep at what he’s done and can’t undo. He remembers many times hearing the murdered girl’s mother call her home for supper, but he can’t for the life of him remember her name. He hides the bodies in a nearby cave, burns their clothes in a kerosene fire, skins the snake, makes a belt out of the snakeskin, and then embarks on a life in which he must daily revisit the scene of his crimes—the boarded-up house the parents abandoned when it became clear their children would never be found, the bus beside which he made his fire to burn their clothing, the Dynamite Hole—and the worst part is that while people “still mention those two kids once in awhile,” the speaker doesn’t think “anybody gives a damn except for me. When his tale lands with an echo of the children’s words—“Jesus, save me!”—what’s most chilling for the reader is the knowledge that the reader’s full sympathies now lie with the rapist-murderer, a man who is fully aware that he needs saving, who is haunted by what he has done, and whose fondest memory is yet that day at the Dynamite Hole when he did what he did to that little boy and that little girl, and in the process achieved the closest thing to human companionship he had ever known in his adult life.
That’s the thing that the reading experience delivers but about which it is so difficult to report coherently, because the effects are modulated largely through language and tone, effects Pollock taught himself to master while copying word-for-word the stories of the master writers he admired. The gift he displays in the Knockemstiff stories is less a narrative gift than a lyrical one. The stories in many ways are closer kin to the single-movement poem than they are to the kind of accumulative work that is the bread-and-butter of most novels.
The thing that is most novel-like about Knockemstiff is the unity it achieves by way of its setting. Like Malcolm Cowley’s Portable Faulkner, Knockemstiff opens with a map of the town, and there is nothing subtle about what the map announces: Here is my Yoknapatawpha, locus and boundary of the imaginative ground I will stake as my own and make as real as I make it mythic. It’s a hugely ambitious and presumptuous act, and all the more thrilling because it succeeds. By time the reader finishes the book, the book has played its changes on the reader such that the intrigued outsider the reader once was has become the ultimate insider, and a co-conspirator with the writer in keeping the town secrets. And the town itself has grown in the reader’s mind from a postage stamp to a map of the world, because by book’s end the reader is in lockstep with the citizens of Knockemstiff, for whom the “big city” of Meade (the book’s analogue for the factory town of Chillicothe, Ohio) is a strange and impossibly far-away world. Even though you could probably walk there in a couple of hours or so, who would think of doing it?
The geography of The Devil All the Time has expanded a little. At story’s beginning, Private Willard Russell of Coal Creek, West Virginia, is riding a Greyhound, on his way home from a nightmare stint in the Pacific theater, where he and some of the men from his outfit came across a marine gunnery sergeant who had been skinned alive and crucified by Japanese soldiers on a makeshift cross fashioned from two palm trees. The sergeant is swarmed with black flies, and his heart is still beating. There’s nothing for Willard to do except offer “a little mercy,” so he shoots him behind the ear, and they bury him under some rocks at the foot of the cross. A little while later, a group of Japanese soldiers surrender to the Americans in a strangely debasing way—there is fresh blood on their machetes, and they seem to be begging for their lives. Willard and his buddies execute them instead of taking them prisoner, and one of the Americans, “a Louisiana boy who wore a swamp rat’s foot around his neck to ward off slant-eyed bullets,” cuts off their ears with a straight razor. We’re made to know that “the inside of Willard’s head hadn’t been the same since.”
And here we get evidence of another newly expansive thing the novel offers that the stories don’t: That wily and authoritative third-person omniscient narrator, who is capable of not only seeing through the point of view of his characters, but who is also capable of seeing his characters from the outside, of knowing them in ways that they can’t know themselves, and of passing judgment upon them in ways that renders The Devil All the Time more reliable than Knockemstiff. In the stories, there is always a pleasing tension between the story the character has been telling himself about his life, or the story the narrator-protagonist wants to have us believe about his life, and the thing he won’t or can’t say or know about his life which is implicit in the story and which the reader is made to know indirectly. In the novel, the narrator gives the reader ample access to the interior life of the pertinent characters, but he (certainly this narrator is a he) also gives the reader the pleasures the omniscient narrator can offer—the expository longueur, the refuting pronouncement, the intentional ironic juxtaposition in which the reader becomes immediately complicit. It’s a wise move for the writer to make when he means to tell a story that will offer—as this story will offer—so many moving parts. It also makes possible the pleasingly open-ended way the chapters end. Unlike the stories, which tend to end with a final fetid image (“Holler,” for example, ends with the narrator picking up “the tiny skull of a wretched little bird,” then slipping it “as thin and fragile as an egg, into my mouth”), these chapters often end in a manner that turns the reader’s attention toward some future action (the ending of Chapter 8, por ejemplo: “He began making his way down through the woods.”) The effect couldn’t be any more different. At the end of “Holler,” you close the book, maybe take a walk around the block, maybe try to get the phantom taste of that bird skull, and maybe of yolk, out of your dry mouth. At the end of any given chapter of The Devil All the Time, you turn the page because you can’t bear not turning it, because you need to know what happens next.
What happens next is all hell breaks loose. When the Greyhound bus takes a rest stop in Meade, Willard falls in love with a diner waitress, leaves her a dollar tip, goes home to Coal Creek and not for long, refuses to marry the girl for whose sake his mother has made a promise with God, returns to Meade, marries the waitress, rents a house atop the Mitchell Flats in Knockemstiff, nearly beats a man to death in front of his son for talking about her, watches her waste away with cancer, prepares blood sacrifices (“dogs, cats, raccoons, possums, groundhogs, deer”) over a “prayer log,” tells his son to “pray goddamn it!,” murders his landlord with a hammer in the hope that a human sacrifice will have more power than an animal sacrifice, and when none of it works, he kneels over the prayer log and slits his own throat, and his son finds his bled-out body. That brings us to page 55, and I haven’t even mentioned the other major plot threads that start cranking up around the same time—the spider-handling preacher and the pedophile in the wheelchair, the psychosexual serial killer spouses Carl and Sandy, and, most of all, Arvin Eugene Russell, Willard’s orphaned son, who is as close to passing for a hero as this novel will allow.
If this sounds like a lurid potboiler, that’s because it is, but that’s not all it is. Take a look at your good shelves, the ones where you keep the “fine literature.” I tried this yesterday. I found, for starters: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (pedophilia, revenge murder), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (infanticide, sex with a spiteful ghost), William Faulkner’s Sanctuary (rape with a corncob.) What distinguishes literature from prurient entertainment often isn’t subject matter, but rather some combination of intensity and quality of language, sharp attention to form, insightfulness about human beings, and the author’s ability not only to know how to have something to say, but also to actually have something to say, and to say it in a way we’ve never heard it said before.
Early in the book, Willard remembers a story a priest told him on a navy ship. The Romans used to gut donkeys and sew Christians inside the carcasses, and leave them to rot in the sun. If even half of history was true, the priest tells Willard, “then the only thing this depraved and corrupt world was good for was preparing you for the next.” Willard believes it, and because he believes it, his actions, which seem crazy in every other way, carry with them a special sort of sanity: according to the logic taught him first by the war, then by the Japanese soldiers, then by the navy priest, then by the unfathomably awful death of his wife, he does what he believes God requires of him, and if that requirement includes murder and animal slaughter and suicide, well . . . a cursory look at the Old Testament shows that’s not the worst God has ever required of any of his followers.
The evil Willard has perceived as the world’s true condition finds its fullest expression, in the book, in the serial killers Carl and Sandy. When Willard’s son Arvin has his inevitable confrontation with them near the story’s end, he won’t leave any more unbloodied by what the world exacts from its better inhabitants than his father did. He revisits the site of his father’s blood sacrifices, so near the same Mitchell Flats where the tragic events of Knockemstiff’s “Dynamite Hole” got started, and finds that he is literally but also in many figurative ways standing “once again in his father’s church,” and for the first time since his mother died, he prays: “Tell me what to do.” The only answer he receives is the ghostly sound of the wind rattling the things his father once left in the trees around him. Soon he will have to commit one more atrocity he’d rather not commit in order to stay free and alive. But unlike his father, he does not sacrifice himself. And unlike the narrator of “Dynamite Hole,” he does not stay to live less than a life in the place where all the bad things happened. Instead, he walks away from Knockemstiff, toward Route 50 and the awful world beyond, the place where he plans to be about the business of living.
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes
- 1 First Openly Straight Figure Skater Comes Forward
- 2 Brooklyn Man Now Living Entirely Off Own Beard Garden
- 3 “Cra Cra” Now Official Diagnosis in New DSM (DSM-5)
- 4 OfficeMax Marketing Director Struggling to Make Staplers ‘Sexy’ and ‘Conversational’
- 5 Homeless Guy Woos Silicon Valley VCs with Low-Tech Crowdfunding Startup
- 6 Area Man Tailors Life To Be More Relevant To His Hulu Advertisements
- 7 Fan Banging Furiously on Glass Could Be the Difference in Hockey Playoffs
- 8 Survey: 88% of Eagles Fans Too Drunk To Spell Nnamdi Asomugha Last Season
- 9 Local Mom Won’t Stop Being First Person to Like Every Goddamn Thing Son Posts to Facebook
- 10 Shaq Confident He Will Eventually Make Funny Quip on TNT