This graphic and brutal West Virginia gothic reminds me of the tv series Justified. There’re cops here crooked as any in the tv series, and the talk, the cadence in the voices sure brings to mind Raylen Givens. In fact even the name could be a character right out of this novel. Donald Ray Pollock had previously published a short story collection, Knockemstiff. He’s followed that up with his first novel The Devil All The Time. The fictional town of Knockemstiff is referenced several times in this boldly bloody novel.
One of the two main threads deal with the story of Arvin Russell, whose mother dies of cancer and then his father commits suicide. When Arvin discovers his fathers body, he directs the local sheriff (Bodecker) to the body. He’s subsequently brought up by his grandparents. The other thread focuses on Carl and Sandy Henderson, who just happen to be a pair of serial killers with a bizarre MO. They go off on “hunting” trips in the summer time, pick-up hitchhikers and they offer up sex with Sandy, while Carl photographs them (he refers to them as “models”). They are then shot and robbed. Carl collects the pictures, using them as a substitute for sex. Sandy Henderson is described in such a way that you cannot help but be put in mind of Juliette Lewis in Natural Born Killers. Sandy, by the way is Sheriff Bodecker’s sister.
There are several minor threads, one of which features two drifter/itinerant preachers (Roy and Theodore). Before sacrificing his wife to God (understatement: religion and religious fervor are not shown in a flattering light) Roy had fathered a child Lenora, who is saved and raised by Arvin’s grandparents. Arvin considers her his half-sister. When another philandering preacher comes to town, he gets Lenora pregnant and she commits suicide. Poor Lenora. Abandoned at birth by her preacher father and impregnated by another preacher years later. You can see the connections and where Pollock is headed with this. As the separate threads slowly come together to a satisfying conclusion, you can feel the threads tightening, the gaps in the connections closing. The plotting is very tight, taut and suspenseful. The happenstance never seems forced. Maybe its because the things that happen in this novel are so bizarre that we just accept that anything is possible in these parts.
An excellent read as far as I’m concerned, though I can see people steering way clear of it with its obsessiveness and sudden violence. Be aware though, that some of the horrific violence can be relayed with an almost tender hand
In Part Four of the novel (Winter), the serial killers are doing their domestic thing as they are holed up for the winter. Sandy works as a waitress and saves her tips to bankroll their next summers hunting trips. She gets home from work with dinner (“cold hamburgers slathered with mustard, three bottles of beer, and the evening newspaper.”). She counts and stacks her tips.
“you did pretty good tonight,” he said, when she finally finished counting.
“Not bad for a Wednesday, I guess,” she said with a tired smile. “So what did you do today?”
He shrugged. “Oh, cleaned out the fridge, sang a few songs.”
“You didn’t piss of the old lady again, did you?”
“Just kidding,” he said. “I got some new pictures to show you.”
“Which one is it?” she asked.
“The one with the red bandanna tied around his head. They turned out pretty good.”
“Not tonight,” she said. “I’d never get to sleep.” Then she pushed half the change over to him. He scooped it up and dumped it in a coffee can he kept under the sink. They were always saving for the next junker, the next roll of film, the next trip. Opening the last beer, he poured her a glass. Then he got down on his knees in front of her and pulled her shoes off, began rubbing the work out of her feet. “I shouldn’t have said anything about your damn doctor today,” he said. “You watch whatever you want.”
“It’s just something to do, baby,” Sandy said. “Takes my mind off things, you know?” He nodded, gently worked his fingers into the soft soles of her feet. “That’s the spot” she said, stretching out her legs. Then, after she finished the beer and a last cigarette, he scooped her skinny body up and carried her giggling down the hallway and into the bedroom. Hehadn’t heard her laugh in weeks. He would keep her warm tonight, that was the least he could do. It was nearly four in the morning, and somehow, with lots of luck and little regret, they had made it through another long winter day.
One night at a bar, Carl hears two upper-middle class suits whispering together and he falls into a reverie:
…[he] tried to imagine their lives, the irrevocable steps they had taken to get to where they were on this cold, dark night in Meade, Ohio. It was electric, the sensation that went through him just then, the awareness he had of his own short time on earth and what he had done with it, and these two old fucks and their connection to it all. It was the same sort of feeling he got with the models. They had chosen one ride or one direction over another, and they had ended up in his and Sandy’s car. Could he explain it? No, he couldn’t explain it, but he sure as hell could feel it. The mystery, that’s all Carl could ever say. Tomorrow, he knew, it wouldn’t mean anything. The feeling would be gone until the next time. Then he heard water running in the sink back in the kitchen, and the clear image of a soggy grave he’d once dug on a starry night rose to the surface of his memory – he’d dug in a wet spot, and a half-moon, high in the sky and as white as new snow had bobbed and settled on top of the water seeping into the bottom of the hole and he had never seen anything so beautiful – and he tried to hold on to the image because he hadn’t thought about it for awhile, but the old men’s voices broke in again and disturbed his peace.
Here’s one that’s just chilling. Carl remembers once, just before he stuck a gun in the ear of “some curly-haired Purdue prick” and tied him up, he found a book in his pocket, The Poems of John Keats.
He opened the book to a poem and started reading it while the boy cried for his life, Carl’s voice getting louder and louder to drown out the other’s pleading until he came to the last line, which he has forgotten now, some bullshit about love and fame that he had to admit made the hair stand up on his arms at the time. Then he pulled the trigger and a wad of wet, gray brains shot out the other side of the college boy’s head. After he fell over, blood pooled in the sockets of his eyeballs like little lakes of fire, which made a hell of a picture…
I can understand if you want to pass this one by if violence turns your stomach. There’s plenty here to do just that if you are so inclined. But Pollock is a helluva writer