Pollock, Donald Ray. The Devil All the Time. New York: Doubleday – Random House, 2011. Print.
“He’d been brought up to believe that you never talked to God when you were under the influence. A man needed to be sincere with the Master all times in case he was ever really in need.”
~ Donald Ray Pollock, The Devil All the Time (17)
How do I annotate a book that moved me, disgusted me, pushed my morals around, and infected me? Carefully, sure, but it’s not a rhetorical question I’m asking myself. I’ve been going around in circles trying to decide which is the most necessary angle with which to approach a critical analysis of this work. The choices, for me, are threefold. First, I could go craft analysis and discuss Pollock’s writing. Second, I could open the can of rotting worms that is the content of this book (violence, morality, religion, perversion, and everything else). Third, I could dig into the flag this book’s been raising among readers and writers – the one tied to the question of “is this literary fiction?” So, abandoning the typical narrow lens approach with which I prefer to study the books I read, I think I’ll try and go for all three angles, because I can’t decide which is most important to me as a reader or, more importantly for a work like this, as a writer.
Craft first, because, without it, the book wouldn’t work, right? Probably. Thankfully, Pollock’s committed to his craft. While there were times I felt like the writing was a little green (and, it is, considering this guy’s a newly minted MFA), overall, I was impressed with the constancy of the tone of the book. Pollock went after the sound of down and dirty southern gothic and he nailed it. His POV shifts initially bothered me, as I’ve never been much a fan of full omniscient storytelling as it, in my opinion, makes things too easy for the writer and not mysterious enough for the reader. However, I came to enjoy being inside the character’s heads freely throughout. And, it aided to the structural integrity of the story. At times, I found myself frustrated by the easily contrived nature of the stories as they connected to each other. But, all novels tend toward some easy coincidence or convenient connection and as far as novel structure goes, this one does it well without relying too much on how things will come to a head by the end (which, boy do they). The other elements of fiction craft are there, as well, but I’ll address some of them in a bit while looking at the literary qualities of the book. Perhaps, in the craft side of it all, it’s Pollock’s language that most made my experience a good one.
They kept praying and spilling blood on the log and hanging up twisted, mashed roadkill. All the while, Willard was considering the conversation he’d had with the fat-ass landlord. He’d run it through his head a hundred times, figured Dunlap probably wanted him to kill the black man or the wife or maybe both of them(48).
Stepping back up on the metal bucket, she put the noose around her neck and tightened it. A trickle of sweat ran down her face, and she caught herself thinking that she should do this out in the sunlight, in the warm summer air, maybe even wait another day or two…She started to loosen the noose and the lard bucket began to wobble. Then her foot slipped and the bucket rolled away and left her dangling in the air. She had dropped only a few inches, not nearly enough to break her neck clean…Her face turned purple. She was vaguely aware of urine running down her legs. The blood vessels in her eyes began to burst…(187).
And these two who just picked him up, another couple of losers. The woman seemed to think she was sexy or something, the way she kept smiling at him in the mirror and licking her lips, but just looking at her gave him the willies. There was a ripe, fishy smell coming from somewhere in the car, and he figured it had to be her. He could tell the fat man was dying to suck his dick, the way he kept turning around in the front seat and asking stupid questions so he could take another look at his crotch (209).
The above examples lead into the content of the book. It would be easy to give example after example of the mixed content of the book. Breaking it down into topics: violence, religion, poverty, sex, perversion, murder, lying, stealing, rape, prostitution, etc. The themes that stem from these content decisions are just as mixed: redemption, forgiveness, revenge, education, journey, consequence, moralization, etc. It’s packed full of so much, the reader begins to wonder why? Why cram in so many deplorable acts? So many filthy settings? So many despicable people? Sure the area and the time in which this two-decade long story is set wasn’t so dark, so unforgiving, so hopeless, was it? Maybe it was. That’s not so much the point, though. The point, I think, Pollock is trying to make is that the ‘badness’ (the Devil, evil, whatever) in us is unrelenting, and that filth begets filth begets filth. And, really, to give the story, its characters, and its themes their infective power, he had to commit to the rotting of things, the festering of people and places, the fatalism that existed for his characters. There was no such thing as a happy ending, even a twisted one, for any of them. To go after that kind of content means unwavering dedication from the writer. So, while I was grossed out, offended at times, I was ultimately impressed and moved by the darkness of the story.
And that’s what brings me to the ultimate question of whether this fits into literary fiction or not. This is a tough one to answer, because the definition is so loose and, for many, comes down to a combination of taste and definition. I’ve come to a very simple, isolating characteristic (albeit, reductive) that helps me identify a work as literary or not (this doesn’t regard the blending some works tend to do as not all genre fiction or literary fiction is mutually exclusive). For me, it comes down to the word instruction, and whether or not a piece is instructive. It’s still loose, yes, but it helps to weed out those works that masquerade as literary behind language and style. While this piece doesn’t flaunt language, it does boast style, and it uses many common literary techniques and tropes. But it’s still hard to answer, because the content is borderline (and, often over the line) gratuitous. So it comes to the second part of the question for me in determining it’s instructiveness as a literary novel: Could it do what it does without the content being so abhorrent? Would I be forced to question my beliefs, refine my morals, define my worldview (religion, violence, sexuality, treatment of other people) by a tamer version of this story? I don’t think so. I think if the content were toned down, the book would begin to bleed into genre fiction – murder story, crime noir, guttery southern gothic. And it wouldn’t do what it does in its true, disgusting form. Of course, considering that, a new question begs asking – one that pushes me further into the camp of “this is literary fiction because it gets me thinking about bigger things in my life.” That question is: are the boundaries moving? Is desensitization really happening? Does it take this kind of pushing of every boundary to get people to consider the fortification of their own moral code? And I wonder: did anyone have similar thoughts at the time when Flannery O’Connor published A Good Man is Hard to Find? I have a feeling this book, while it will never hold a candle to some of our greatest literary successes, will be regarded by future writers and readers as a piece of important American Literature.