Donald Ray Pollock's The Devil All the Time is an expansive, decades-spanning slice of Americana, roughly centered on the small Ohio town of Knockemstiff, which also provided both the title and setting of Pollock's acclaimed 2009 short-story collection. As readers of Knockemstiff well know, Pollock is not inclined toward a charitable view of human nature: The Devil All the Time is a systematic cataloguing of the horror and hypocrisy that festers in the dark shadow of the American dream.
The book's central character is Arvin Russell, whose life is marked by tragedy from an early age: As a boy, he's forced to participate in animal sacrifices that his father hopes in vain will keep his mother from dying of cancer. They slaughter wild animals and neighborhood dogs—and, eventually, their landlord—dousing a backyard "prayer log" in blood and hanging the bodies on crosses until the yard becomes a rotting tableau, where "maggots dripped from the trees and crosses like squirming drops of white fat."
This vivid image is only the beginning of an interrelated pageant of grotesqueries that eventually loses its power to shock. There's a husband-and-wife serial killer duo who take pornographic photographs of their tortured victims; a musician who crippled himself to prove his religious bona fides, then copes with his homosexuality by going after little boys; and a colorful range of corruptions from ostensibly god-fearing men. (Memorably, a preacher describes sex with his young wife as "like sticking his staff in a greasy, soulless doughnut.") The mystique of small-town America, so often romanticized as a time of sock hops and drive-ins, is systematically inverted: One local police officer likes to head to the local Sugar Shack after work to "wolf down cheeseburgers and fries and milk shakes; and finish things off with a couple of ice-cold beers down along the River Road, leaned back in his seat while Florence jacked him off into her empty Pepsi cup." So much for the sepia charms of the neighborhood soda shop.
Here tawdriness and tragedy are such a part of the landscape that they're eventually stripped of their sting. It's as though Pollock has thrown the full strength of his considerable talent to reorienting the reader's compass, to setting new parameters for what defines "normal"—in Pollock's map of America, police officers are corrupt, religion perverted, and sex is commerce at best. But if you squint hard enough, you might find a few, faint flickers of redemption.