Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Review of The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollack (Harvill Secker, 2011)

1945 and Willard Russell returns home from the terror of combat in the Pacific islands a changed man.  En-route to West Virginia he stops at the Wooden Spoon cafe in Meade, southern Ohio, falling for the charms of Charlotte, the waitress.  After a few days with his mother and her attempts to match-make him with a local orphan girl, Helen, he returns to the cafe for a new life.  Helen, a religious girl falls for Roy, a charlatan, hustling preacher always accompanied by Theodore, a guitar-playing cripple confined to a wheelchair.  Both Willard and Helen start families at the same time, Charlotte giving birth to Arvin, Helen to Lenora.  Disaster strikes both families.  Helen is murdered a few months after Lenora’s birth, Roy and Theodore vanishing at the same time.  Eight years later, Charlotte dies of cancer despite Willard’s prayers and sacrifices to keep her alive and Arvin is sent to his grandmother, to grow up with Lenora.  In Meade, Lee Bodecker plots to become the sheriff and his younger sister hooks up with Carl, a photographer, their strange romance leading down a path of murder.  In the meantime, Roy and Theodore eke out a living, Roy dreaming of seeing his daughter once again.  The paths of the main characters seem to barely intersect as they swirl around each other, but fate is set to draw them back together just as Arvin and Lenora reach their mid-teenage years, with darkness and violence never far away.

The Devil All the Time is noir to its core, relentless dark and bleak with hardly a thin crack of light of hope and redemption on the horizon.  The book has many positives.  It is beautifully written in well crafted and evocative prose, delivered in an even, rhythmic cadence.  The story is well rooted in time and place, capturing the rural mid-West in the post-war period, and the murky social relations, petty crime and more that shaped communities and the bonds between family members.  The characters are well realised, their weaknesses, vices, foibles and back story nicely penned.  The whole book had the feel of craft to it, both the story and the physical artefact - the book is beautifully produced.  And yet, for all this, I wasn’t fully captured by and immersed in the story.  And I should have been: The Devil All the Time is carefully sculpted, literary, crime fiction.  Don’t get me wrong, this was a very good and engaging read, but it could have been stellar.  On reflection, I think the issue was that for most of the book the narrative seemed liked a set of well written, interlinked vignettes stretched out over a fifteen year span, so the arc of the story felt like loose connections rather than being tight, taut web.  Pollack does pull all of the threads together, but there’s no change in tempo as it nears the end; more a quiet, understated but violent resolution and an opening for the tale to continue.  Overall, a polished and evocative slice of country noir that portrays starkly the dark underbelly of rural America.

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