Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Hillbilly heaven

Anytime you have a blend of backwoods, booze, and blood, comparisons to Flannery O'Connor inevitably follow, which I've always found kind of strange. Sure, O'Connor is probably best known for works like "Good Country People," but many of her stories are set in cities, not the country. But it's not surprising that Donald Ray Pollock's debut novel, The Devil All The Time, is being compared to O'Connor and William Faulkner, although he lacks O'Connor's knifelike precision and Faulkner's feather-light touch.

The Devil follows Pollock's short story collection, Knockemstiff, and Pollock seems determined to thoroughly inhabit the dreary ghost town of Knockemstiff, Ohio, as Faulkner inhabited Yoknapatawpha County.

Knockemstiff is an actual town, though, a ghost town in northeastern Ohio, where Pollock was born. Pollock spent the first half century of his life as a truck driver and laborer at the Mead Paper Mill before publishing Knockemstiff as a student at the Ohio State University creative writing program, so he perhaps has more in common with his characters than most of his readers - something his publisher is pretty gleeful about. Knockemstiff won the 2009 PEN/Robert Bingham Award, so The Devil All The Time was a highly anticipated follow-up.

For the most part, it delivers, until the unrelenting brutality becomes overwhelming. Both O'Connor and Faulkner had an unerring sense of just when too much was too much, which made their stories all the more cutting - by pulling back just when the reader would start getting numbed. Pollock hasn't mastered that yet, and The Devil starts feeling like an exercise in masochism about three-quarters of the way through.

The Devil opens in 1945, with Private Willard Russell heading home to West Virginia from the Pacific. Sick of war and trauma, Russell ends up at a shabby diner in Ohio and falls in love with the waitress, a beauty named Charlotte. Russell and Charlotte wed and end up living in the dreary hamlet of Knockemstiff (population 400) with their son, Arvin, when Charlotte is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Determined to save her, Willard spirals into a particularly religious flavor of insanity, making blood sacrifices to his "prayer log" in the backyard and spending hours pleading with God to spare his wife. Charlotte dies anyway and Willard soon follows.

Young Arvin ends up back in his father's hometown of Coal Creek, living with his grandmother Emma and her brother, Earskell, and Lenora, the girl that Emma adopted after Lenora's husband, a sham preacher with a wheelchair-bound sidekick, failed to revive her with prayer. Since "failed to revive" is roughly the same as "murdered," at least legally speaking, the grotesque duo high-tail it out of Coal Creek.

The rest of the novel alternates between the dreariness of Knockemstiff and the equally depressing Coal Creek. Pollock introduces us to the loathsome Sandy and Carl Henderson, a husband-and-wife team loosely based on the murderous Charles Starkweather and his teenaged girlfriend Caril, who romped around the Midwest in the early 1950s shooting people. Sandy alternates her time between tending bar at the local dive and dabbling in prostitution to take "vacations" with Carl, a failed photographer, driving around and scouting for hitchhikers to torture and kill. Sandy's brother, Lee Bodecker, is the town's requisite crooked sheriff.

Meanwhile, in Coal Creek, Arvin and Lenora are growing up. Despite his whackadoo childhood, Arvin seems remarkably well-adjusted for a Pollock character, which means that he saves the violence for people who at least seem to deserve it. However, because Pollock never sees a garden without needing a snake, he introduces the lecherous Preacher Teagardin, who veers over the line into caricature, with his voracious appetite for young parishioners, slick suits, and illiterate child bride.

On the run from Coal Creek, Arvin heads back to Knockemstiff, only to intersect with Sandy and Carl, on the road and looking for victims.

Pollock has the squirmy stuff down, a knack for deadpan humor, and an ability to conjure up disturbing characters, from the fanatical preacher duo of Roy and Theodore to the denizens of a traveling backwoods carnival. However, his touch falters when he tries to transcend his work's grotesqueness, and The Devil All The Time staggers under its own weight.

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