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Review of The Devil All the Time and Volt

July 26, 2011

Lives of Quiet and Sometimes Violent Desperation

Recently I read two fantastic books that force-fed my deepest anxieties about humanity.  Unspeakable atrocities, violence and consequences are meted out with very little redemptive reward.  But still, I was riveted.  Real lives with no fairy tale endings.  People trapped in situations that they can’t escape.  Thoreau said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.  These books are about those men, women and children – most of whom never even had a song.  There is plenty of alcohol, drugs, hard work and poverty.  In other words, the stories provide a realistic look – to the nth degree – of the lives of lots of people who are walking around everywhere, everyday, all the time.  Both authors have been compared to Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner for their gothic bleakness and their psychological studies of desperate characters.
Donald Ray Pollock’s book, The Devil All the Time, is a tightly-written tumble through the hollers of Ohio and West Virginia that is like a car wreck from which one can’t avert one’s gaze.  As much as I wanted to put down this gripping page-turner to spare myself from what I knew was coming, I could not.  It spans the time between WWII and the 1960s and opens in the fall of 1945 when Private Willard Russell returns home from the war.  There are serial killers, sleazy preachers and a corrupted sheriff to name but a few of the unsavory souls. Brilliantly, Pollock leaves the grittiest details to our imaginations because he knows that by doing so, it will be scarier than anything he could put to paper.  As in a Hitchcock movie, you know what’s coming but you don’t know exactly when, how or even why and that’s what makes it truly frightening. It’s a constant dull ache until the end when we finally realize that nothing makes sense, nothing gets better, but just maybe, once in awhile, there is some karmic kickback.  The narrative satisfyingly ends where it began with all the loose threads pulled together in a heart-stopping conclusion.
Pollock’s story has three kinds of characters:  the pathetic, the really pathetic and the horrible.  One can only hope that at least the merely pathetic find their way to some sort of redemption.  One character who does, Arvin Russell, is an orphan who loses his parents – his mom to cancer and his father to grief.  We follow him through his evolution from a numb young victim into a man who decides to take actions to remedy the wrongs that have been inflicted on those around him. Tolstoy said, “Happy families are all alike: every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  It is through Pollock’s eyes that we see just how many ways there are to be unhappy.  We also see that women, children and the disenfranchised are usually on the losing end.  No surprise there.
Pollock’s first book was the critically acclaimed Knockemstiff.  It was written when he was almost 50 after a life of working mill jobs. He finally decided to give writing a shot and gave himself five years to make it.  He did make it – splendidly. The collection of short stories tells the tales of a bunch of ne’er-do-wells from the rural Ohio town named Knockemstiff.  His second effort, The Devil All the Time, proves that Pollock is no one-trick pony.
Alan Heathcock, author of Volt, is a new voice.  His book of eight short stories is bleak with touches of bittersweet and compassion.  They play out in the fictional town of rural Krafton and have a timeless, almost dream-like, quality that makes it hard to know when exactly they are taking place.  It doesn’t matter.  The rich narratives are lyrical and he contrasts his characters’ struggles against a backdrop of nature that is dazzling.
“The setting sun nestled in the treetops.  Beyond the loons, packs of pintails and canvasbacks bobbed on red-tinged water.  A flurry of ducks took wind.  They flew toward the sun and banked high above.  A shotgun fired upshore. A duck dropped from the chevron, tumbling down and down to thud in the cattails at Winslow’s feet.”
A few stories have the recurring character of Helen Farraley, a middle-aged former grocery store manager, who has become the town’s “first and only law officer.”   We watch Helen suffer through days filled with floods, deceit, and murder.  She is conflicted but sure of what needs to be done for justice to be served.  Her fully-flushed out character is a work of art.
Love, greed, revenge, sorrow, and shame are the cornerstones of great characters.  Both Pollock and Heathcock are master storytellers who understand those motivations on a gut level and layer their characters deeply and lushly by putting them at the mercy of these forces.  While Volt is bleak and The Devil All the Time is mournful, they are both exquisite portrayals of the dark underbelly of America.  They show, among other things, that there are so many ways in which to be desperate and that once in awhile there is a way for hope to be found.

The Devil All the Time, Doubleday
Volt, Graywolf Press

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