Book Review: The Devil all the Time, by Donald Ray Pollock


This book is about the sorry state of man in the world, his struggle against evil, religion, and death, as well as the rigors of everyday life. It’s about the futility of prayer and the uselessness of religion and the non-existence of God. Man is turned loose to kill and be killed, to suffer and die, all the while pleading
with either a God that is deaf and dumb, or one that does not exist. The message I got from the book was that whether there is a God or not, man has been put on the Earth to suffer and wallow in filth and degradation, all without the intervention of God, no matter how we plead, and no matter what sacrifices we make, real or metaphorical.


The story takes place in small town in Ohio and in West Virginia from the end of WWII to the Vietnam war, but the time and place are irrelevant with respect to the message. The characters are primarily dirt poor uneducated hicks, some of whom are engaged in violent and murderous ways, the rest of whom are simply victims of their poor circumstance, or of the murderous characters. The story is a bloody fucking mess from one end to the other, but to a large extent void of specifics of the violence. We know that people are tortured, sexually brutalized, and killed, but there are no detailed graphic descriptions of these acts. They are not needed.


There are many Biblical references, such as the sacrifice of a lamb, and crucifixion, but one of the most disturbing, and one that is easy to miss in the story, is when the main character's father is praying and sacrificing animals, and even sacrifices a human, to try to save his wife from death by cancer, he is prepared to sacrifice his son (Arvin) at the altar he has created in the woods, a la Abraham and Isaac. He (the father) thankfully draws the line and puts the knife away.


The most important lesson Arvin's father gives him is to not take any shit from no one, and to wait for the right time to exact revenge. He demonstrates this tenet by beating a man to a drooling idiot because he said he would like to fuck his wife. Arvin then becomes the avenger of evil, beating and killing people for transgressions great and small, some of which the law would punish the evildoer, others not. In his defense, everyone he punished had it coming, and he made sure it was just. Three of his murders were in self defense, and those murdered were themselves murderers. So, we like and sympathize with Arvin.


The book is filled with murder, suicide, sexual deviance, false preaching, and futile praying. It felt to me to be  sanitized, perhaps by the editors. The book is much less violent or graphic than some of its predecessors, such as “Blood Meridian,” which over twenty years ago was much more graphic in its violence. One can also see the editor’s hand in toning down the language, although there is no shortage of “fucks” and “cocksuckers.” But these are the words I know and understand, and I know that the characters in the book would use them as verbs, adjectives, conjunctions and punctuation. There were many fewer occasions of their use than one would expect.


I do not summarize plot in my reviews, generally, because I don’t want to give anything away. This is a great novel, and I enjoyed reading it. There are at least three separate plot lines that finally intertwine and mix near the end of the book, the crafting of which was masterfully done. I congratulate Mr. Pollock for writing this and getting it published at his ripe old age. Brilliant work. Read this book.