The Devil All the Time
“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 which was worse, the drinking or the praying. As far back as he could remember, it seemed that his father had fought the Devil all the time.” ― Donald Ray Pollock, The Devil All the Time
This is not a novel that I would recommend to everyone. That is not because this is a bad novel, for it is indeed a very good one; rather I hesitate in my recommendation because there are no truly good characters in this book, in fact the are several very bad ones. The best you can say about the central protagonist, Arvin Russell, is that his violent tendencies are reserved for some of the worst of the lot.
So what is there to recommend about this novel? The author has captured realistically a slice of America's underside and portrayed it very well with strong characterizations and a believable, if not somewhat improbable and very violent, plot.
Set in Ohio and West Virginia in the years following World War II, it tells the stories of various desperate characters, including a veteran suffering from PTSD, a pair of husband-and-wife serial killers, and both a preacher and sheriff who are corrupt.
The protagonist, Arvin, is presented in a prologue as a young boy. He sits in a clearing with his father, Willard, on an oak log, joining him in his evening prayer routine. Willard is borderline obsessive when it comes to prayer and expects the same from his son. While Arvin prays, however, his mind wanders and feelings of isolation bubble to the surface. He feels like an outsider at school, he is the victim of relentless bullying. Arvin recalls his father telling him to stand up for himself, but this is easier said than done.
Willard recalls the horrifying things he saw and did during the war. One memory haunts him in particular: that of a soldier he comes across who has been skinned and crucified. Willard shoots the man as an act of mercy, putting an end to his suffering. Upon his return home he had married a young woman named Charlotte Willoughby and together they have a son whom they name Arvin. As the years pass, Willard becomes obsessed with prayer. The obsession only deepens when Charlotte contracts cancer. Willard’s rituals become progressively more bizarre and upsetting, culminating in animal and even human sacrifice. Willard believes these acts of devotion are necessary to save his wife. Nevertheless, in the end, Charlotte still dies, prompting Willard to commit suicide. Traumatized by his parents’ deaths and his father’s behavior, Arvin moves in with his grandmother, Emma. There, he meets Lenora, an orphan girl whom Emma takes in after her mother, Helen, is killed, most likely by a traveling preacher named Roy who is also Lenora’s father.
The narrator moves on to tell of Carl and Sandy Henderson, a pair of murderous lowlifes who entertain themselves by picking up male hitchhikers and killing them. Their reign of terror is allowed to persist in part because Sandy’s brother, Sheriff Bodecker, is corrupt and incompetent. An unemployed photographer, Carl takes pictures of his victims, calling them models.
In the meantime Arvin and Lenora grow up and become very close. When Lenora is bullied at school, Arvin comes to her defense, fighting the bullies, but also demonstrating a violent side that will follow him throughout his life. In addition to further exploits of Carl and Sandy's we are told more about Roy, the traveling preacher who killed Lenora’s mother. Roy lives with his physically disabled cousin, Theodore. After moving on from the Coal Creek Church of the Holy Ghost Sanctified, Roy is replaced by a new preacher, Pastor Teagardin, who lives with his much younger wife, Cynthia. Lenora believes Teagardin to be an exceptionally holy man, but Arvin has his doubts. These suspicions are validated when the reader learns of Teagardin’s seduction and sexual corruption of Cynthia. Teagardin then successfully seduces Lenora, getting the young girl pregnant. Furious, Arvin shoots Teagardin dead and flees Coal Creek.
These dreary yet interesting plot lines come together in the last part of the book. While there is no hero magically appearing on a white horse each of the characters reach an end that is fitting, considering the lives they have lived. Throughout the novel the author builds the suspense so that you are propelled forward in spite of the violence. That aspect, the realism of the story, and the insight into the demented psychology of each of the characters made this a very good novel which I would recommend, especially to fans of Cormac McCarthy or Flannery O'Connor.