Thursday, August 4, 2016

Killer on the Road

Been some excellent poolside reading this summer with a host of unlikely summer feel-gooders like Stephen Graham Jones' Mongrels and Rusty Barnes' Ridgerunner, to the endless bummers that were Ray Banks' Angels of the North and Grant Jerkins' The Abnormal Man. A few big no-brainers yet to get to like Megan Abbott's You Will Know Me, Duane Swierczynski's Revolver and Donald Ray Pollock's The Heavenly Table.

How excited am I for new Pollock? A little twitchy, truth be told. His short story collection Knockemstiff came out around the same time I was starting this here blog and he was even one of the first authors who agreed to be interviewed here - an honor for me. Since then his first novel, The Devil All the Time, burnt the hair off my palms and put whatever he did next in a permanent spot at the top of my TBR list.

Haven't got there yet, but in anticipation I figured I'd post this older piece originally published on another site - my reaction to the mid-year release of The Devil All the Time....

Before I begin, I’d like to just take a moment and apologize to the authors of all the good and wonderful books coming out this summer and later in the year as well as to those preceding this post that really are so very worth your time, because I’m afraid that we’ve now arrived at the book that I’m going to be hitting everyone over the head with for the foreseeable future. I just can’t see anything coming to eclipse Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All the Time – without a doubt the finest book I’ve read this year.

It’s also the scariest and most bizarre, funniest and most harrowing, singe-off-your-body-hair-and-then-make-it-grow-back, clear-up-your-glaucoma-before-poking-out-your-eyes, raise-the-dead-and-smite-them-again horrorscape of big-A Americana I’ve seen in ages. Not for the timid or faint, but if ever there were a reason to be bold, if ever a pay-off for a stout heart and robust sense of adventure in reading this, brothers and sisters, has got to be it.

The book follows a host of characters rooted in southern Ohio from the end of WWII through the 1960s and it’s as rich and memorable a cast as you’re going to find anywhere. Even as the decades pile up and the narrative strains remain largely independent, it is testament to the merit of each that none clamor louder than the others for our attention. There is not a single limp thread trailing through this tapestry of crime, from the revival preacher and his wheel-chair-bound, guitar-playing sidekick to the road-trip-taking husband and wife spree-murdering team to the devout, but na├»ve Lenora whose devotion to a flim-flam pastor will break your heart.

The killers that populate The Devil All the Time come in stripes like psychotic or hired, and right on through categories like corrupt, deluded, righteous-revenging, exultant and guilt-ridden, and though the spectacle is bloody, pitiless and terrifying, the read is always engaging and humane in its portraiture of these lost and wandering souls, and it's no exaggeration to suggest that even the minor characters here deserve their very own book.

With his debut short story collection, Knockemstiff, Pollock, (a high school drop-out who didn’t begin writing seriously till he was nearly fifty and now holds an MFA from Ohio State University) seemed to emerge fully formed as a gravelly veteran, matured, battle-conditioned and ready to slay the hordes of wincing, tepid wordsmiths too pleased with their own cleverness and ever threatening to wrest the legacy of American letters from the calloused, pioneer hands and spirit that begat them. His fiction is harsh – physically and psychologically - but his tone is warm, even compassionate, and never to the right or the left of honest. Without a hint of apology or irony it demands to have its measure taken and then it holds its own. Which is not to say he owes no one. Pollock’s lineage is chock-full of recognizable strains, from Larry Brown to Flannery O’Connor, but his voice is distinctly his own and I predict the near-future universality of the term ‘DR. Pollockian’ that will hang on the emergent legion of bare-knuckled writers poised now on the brink of discovering their greatest inspiration.

Whatever foul, hairy-warted terrors stalked young Donald’s dreams have shaped a kaleidoscopic vision of life and death running along Ohio’s rugged hollers and highways that grown-up Donald has brought to the page in this towering work of opulent, gothic, heartland noir. Pick it up now.

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