Hobbes’ famous quote about life being “nasty, brutish, and short” applies equally to the 20th-century Appalachian towns of The Devil All The Time. The novel’s Ohio and West Virginia locales are filled with hypocrisy, prostitution, and death. Their squalor isn’t excused in any fashion; it isn’t the result of hard-working folk living desperate lives. The characters’ misery could be derived from some cruel God, but more likely, they’re tortured by their inherent weakness and a society that offers no hope for change or redemption.
The Devil All The Time’s core characters are Sandy and Carl, a married couple who regularly go on Natural Born Killers-style murderous vacations. They drive from state to state, picking up hitchhikers for on-camera seduction, followed by on-camera murder. Sandy’s amorality and Carl’s voyeuristic and murderous fetishes are treated in a matter-of-fact fashion. They’re still human, and it’s more than slightly disturbing just how understandable they are while on their sprees.
Even the ostensible hero, a young man named Alvin Russell, doesn’t exactly live a life worth emulating. His mother is wasting away, a saintly woman punished by cancer. His father, a disturbed veteran, cracks under the pain and begins to sacrifice animals alongside Alvin, teaching him the value of well-timed, brutal revenge.
Donald Ray Pollock’s prose is brutal and elegant, making The Devil All The Time distressingly easy to read, in spite of the torture its characters endure. It lacks the operatic universality of, say, a Blood Meridian, focusing instead on the individuals’ degradation. The book’s setting is similarly discomfiting: Its Appalachian inhabitants are little more than animals, as if to confirm ugly stereotypes about the region. The cops are corrupt, the preachers are sex fiends, true believers die horribly, and the sex is anything but sexy—a 50-cent whore with a fetish for the smell of pigshit embodies the book’s willingness to wallow in the muck. The Devil All The Time is literary fiction as torture-porn, where righteous revenge killings are the only form of hope.