Secret Santa. In August. (And yes, I’m suitably embarrassed.)

(In the interest of full disclosure, I have not yet posted on Heather’s blog. What’s the hold up? I couldn’t tell you. Life, I guess. It’s AUGUST. I’m embarrassed. The post is sitting half written in my drafts because I read Heather’s choice for me – Zazen – in February. So way to go Rick! Really. And Heather, I’m so very sorry. So…new goal for this week, right?)

The Devil All the Time
It was back in December (December!) when I came up with the idea to ask some of my favorite book bloggers to participate in a literary Secret Santa with me. I wanted to do something that brought us all together, gave us each a welcome surprise, and would challenge us to read something we might not do so ourselves.

Each of us drew a name from an imaginary hat. We were then responsible for recommending a book to that person. The idea wasn’t to buy the book (most of us lived pretty far away from one another), so we simply made formal requests. We could choose something we really loved and wanted to share, or something we thought our giftee would (hopefully) like.

It was a fun idea that went off without a hitch. That is, except for me. I was lucky enough to have Rory choose a book for me, and she chose The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock. I was beyond excited. It was at once super cool and something I would never have chosen for myself, which is exactly what I’d wanted. And how did I reward her? By not reading the book for seven months. (I could bore regale you with a tale of how I almost quit blogging twice this year, but that’s a detour neither of us would survive.)

To add insult to injury, in my introductory email for the project, I actually wrote the words, “we’d have like a month or a couple of months to read what we’ve been assigned by our Santas.”


Why am I writing this post, then–NOW–on Rory’s blog, no less? Well the best part about the project was that each of us was required to write a review of our assigned books and post it as a guest post on our Secret Santa’s blog. So even though I’m six months too late, I’m finally here. (I feel like a deadbeat dad, saying that just now.)
Enough with the preamble. What did I think about the book, you ask? Was it worth the wait?

The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock

“Unless he had whiskey running through his veins, Willard came to the clearing every morning and evening to talk to God. Arvin didn’t know what was worse, the drinking or the praying. As far back as he could remember, it seems that his father had fought the Devil all the time.”

There’s lots that I could tell you about Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All the Time.

  • I could tell you that it comes from the author of the acclaimed Knockemstiff, but you probably haven’t even heard of that, so, really, that isn’t much help.
  • I could tell you that it’s the thematic successor to Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver, but if you haven’t read much of them, then you didn’t remotely understand what I just said.
  • I could even tell you that it’s a mashup of Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” and HBO’s “True Detective.” But you’re a reader, and maybe you’d rather punch TVs in the face.

What I’ll tell you, then, is that if you’re interested in a southern drama that examines the pitfalls of religion through the failings of several incredibly twisted and flawed lunatics, in a book that would make the folks from Sodom and Gomorrah blush, then The Devil All the Time is the book for you.
The novel semi-successfully weaves together three disparate stories.

  • Arvin Russell. Orphaned at 10, Arvin spends the novel trying to come to terms with a world that seems to dole out nothing but death and destruction. The product of an overly-devout father, Arvin spends his teen years railing against his upbringing, while at the same time falling back on it as the only moral centre he knows.
  • Carl and Sandy. A fucked up husband and wife serial-killing duo, these two maniacs find sexual thrills in murdering and photographing the results.
  • A spider-infatuated preacher and crippled pedophile sidekick. Yes, you read that correctly. The book’s weird, let’s just get that out there.

Along the way there’s a whole lot of murder, most of it for no good reason, but some of it is just. There’s much talk about scripture, and sin, but to say this book is about “faith” would be to misplace it. If anything, it’s about the absence of.

Despite the omni-presence of religion, I don’t think it works as a commentary on it. For the most part, only the far (far) extremes are presented, and belittled. And while we’re at it, it’s not much of a commentary on violence, either. When you’re dealing with characters so far on the fringes of sanity, it’s difficult to compare and contrast it to what each of us knows about life.

My only gripe about The Devil All the Time was its lack of applicability (for me). This story exists so far outside my own experience that I can only watch it from afar. At no point did I feel a personal connection or investment. Pollock’s is a world nothing like my own, or most peoples. It’s interesting, for sure, but almost unbelievable, to a degree.

The silver lining is that, for the most part, the gruesome nature of the story takes a backseat to Pollock’s beautiful, yet spare, prose. The book is a joy to read. It’s compulsively readable, yet incredibly well-written at the same time (a combination that sounds simple to achieve, but is far from it).

Cards on the table, I wasn’t a fan of the nature of this book. I’m not a prude, I’m just not one of these people that enjoys the disturbing. I don’t watch horror movies, I don’t get a charge out of the crazed and absurd. I never understood the appeal. And while this book is definitely more than the sum of its sinister parts, I feel like you at least have to have an appetite for it to come away a fan.

And yet I still enjoyed The Devil All the Time. Quite a lot, actually. A surprising amount, given the subject matter. And the good thing is that what didn’t quite work for me will most certainly work better for you (if you’re more inclined to this sort of thing).

If nothing else, you will find a friend in Arvin, a beautiful light in the darkness. Arvin is what gets you through all the shit Pollock throws at you. He makes the most of a miserable life, with a few well-chosen words.

It can be irritating to read a novel with a character who may as well be wearing a nametag that reads “Hero.” In this case, however, Arvin is necessary. He buoys what might otherwise be a sinking ship. He did for me, at least.
With The Devil All the Time, Donald Ray Pollock has written a distressing, yet engaging, portrayal of the absolute worst parts of us. These are people with nothing to believe in, and nothing to tell them that things will get better. It’s not for everyone. But the best books never are. Pollock dared to take a few steps left of centre, and in the process he created something worthy of devotion.

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