Because there's no rational response to a terminal cancer diagnosis, Willard Russell's course of action following his wife's death sentence doesn't seem as strange as it should.
In Donald Ray Pollock's novel The Devil All the Time, it's a prayer log in the woods, "the remains of a big red oak that had fallen many years ago. A weathered cross, fitted together out of boards pried from the back of the ramshackle barn behind their farmhouse, leaned a little eastward in the soft ground a few yards below them." Willard goes there every morning and evening "unless he had whiskey running through his veins," Pollock writes, and he often takes his son Arvin.
Lest that sound peaceful and perfectly pious for a man who had little use for the church after what he'd seen in World War II, allow Pollock to set the scene as the condition of Willard's wife deteriorates: "Maggots dripped from the trees and crosses like squirming drops of white fat. The ground along the log stayed muddy with blood."
This is in Part One of The Devil All the Time. Out of desperation, Willard begins offering blood sacrifices at the prayer log - animals he killed or scraped off the roads. "But even he had to admit, they didn't seem to working ... ," Pollock writes. "There was one thing that he hadn't tried yet. He couldn't believe that he hadn't thought of it earlier." And that is when Willard decides to kill his landlord.
By the end of Part One - barely a quarter through the novel - Willard's wife has died and he has slit his own throat at the prayer log, leaving Arvin without parents. Another child has been effectively orphaned after her preacher father - who used spiders in his act and decided he could raise the dead - kills her mother. ("It wasn't supposed to be this way," the preacher says after three futile hours trying to revive her.)
And then we get to Part Two, in which we meet the serial-killing couple Carl and Sandy Henderson. They were the genesis of The Devil All the Time, but Pollock thought their story might repulse readers. "This stuff is so grim," the author recalled in an interview last week. "I mean, all my stuff's pretty grim, but I don't know if people are going to want to stay in a book with it just being Carl and Sandy."
That's how Arvin came into being - you know, a family story with cancer and animal and human sacrifice to help lighten the mood. "As far back as he could remember," Pollock writes from Arvin's perspective, "it seemed that his father had fought the Devil all the time." That seems a fair description of the author's fiction, too.
Pollock will be reading from The Devil All the Time and his in-progress novel on April 25 at Augustana College. Published in 2011, Devil was his first novel and second book, but he's by no means a young man.
He worked in a paper mill in southern Ohio for more than three decades, starting in the early 1970s. He said he got sober in 1986 - when he was 33. "Then I had all this free time," he said. The first few years of sobriety were taken up with 12-step meetings. Then, through a program at the mill, he got his bachelor's degree from Ohio University.
He didn't begin writing for several more years - roughly around 2000, while he was still at the paper mill.
"It wasn't going very well," he said. After a year or so of flailing, he began typing out short stories he liked - most notably by Denis Johnson, Flannery O'Connor, and Ernest Hemingway. "They're probably the ones that I learned the most from," he said.
"Almost right from the get-go, I started at least understanding things a bit clearer," he added. "I'm just not a really close reader, and typing the stuff out - I did this on a typewriter, so if I goofed up and I made a mistake, I would start all over again ... - I could see better how people did dialogue, and how they made the transitions in the stories, and just on and on. Just a lot of little things." He did this for a year and a half, averaging a story a week and making notes on what he typed. "Even today, if I'm stuck," he said, "I'll open up a book and type a page out."
He began to find his own voice. The completion of his story "Bactine" convinced him to write primarily about his native southern Ohio. "I knew when I finished that story - it's not a great story or anything like that - but it was by far the best thing that I had done up to that time," he said. One can see in it the emergence of a writer with an incisive style - pinpoint accuracy in seemingly casual language: "He'd been totaled in a freak car crash and had ended up with a giant settlement that cursed him with enough money to vegetate for the rest of his sorry-ass life."
After leaving the paper mill in 2005, Pollock earned his Master of Fine Arts at Ohio State in 2009. His short-story collection Knockemstiff was published in 2008 - while he was still a student - and it won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize.
Knockemstiff is a real town and the place the author grew up. It's impossible to imagine a better-named setting for Pollock's hardscrabble fiction. The book of the same name begins with the story "Real Life": "My father showed me how to hurt a man one August night at the Torch Drive-in when I was seven years old. It was the only thing he was ever any good at."
That story's arc is mirrored in the prologue of The Devil All the Time, with an act of violence perpetrated by the father and witnessed and absorbed by the son: "His father had taught that man a lesson he'd never forget; and the next time somebody messed with him, Arvin was going to do the same. He closed his eyes and began to pray."
There's little fancy about Pollock's prose, drenched in the vernacular of rural poverty, but it's carefully crafted. "I worked in a factory where ... there was a lot of colorful language, and there were a lot of weird descriptive phrases and stuff like that floating around," he said. "But ... to get to some of those sentences, I just kept revising them until I had them as good as I thought I could possibly get them. I am very much into revision. ... The aim was to cut as many words as I could, and to get as much squeezed into a sentence as I could."
And there's a smart narrative device Pollock employs throughout Devil, nonchalantly shifting point of view from one character to another within chapters. The effect is to keep the reader off-balance, never quite sure how or with whom the story will unfold - which is absolutely necessary to make the relatively late introduction of serial killers Carl and Sandy work.
Pollock said that although he has ideas for books beyond the one he's now working on, he can't look too far ahead: "I'm 58 years old. My brain is not going to work too well here in a few more. I figure I've maybe got three, if I'm lucky four, more books in me, then it'll probably be over with. ... If I could finish three more books, I'd be more than happy."
He added that he has no plans to depart from his southern-Ohio setting: "Because of my age and everything, I'll probably stay here. ... I've got enough material, I think, to last me out."
Yet Pollock said he doesn't rue his late start. "Definitely, I have some regrets, because I blew around 20 years pretty much just drinking and getting high," he said. "The only thing that I managed to do in those 20 years - or in at least 15 of them - was hang on to that job at the paper mill. And when I got sober, I had nothing. I lived in this little room above this garage I rented off this old lady, and I had a TV set that my sister had given me, and an old beat-up Chevy. And that's all I had for all those years of work. So I do have some regrets about that. And I had a daughter, and her mother and I got a divorce, and stuff like that, but ... there's no regrets about writing in all that.
"And I do think that probably because of the life that I've lived, it definitely plays a part in the stuff that I write. If anything, I would have been probably a much different writer if I'd started out young."
He also noted that there's an advantage to debuting in one's 50s: "If you start publishing books when you're in your 20s, I think with each book you feel a little more pressure. 'Can I make this next one a little bit better than the last one?' I don't know if I want to try to face that for 40 or 50 years. I think I'm lucky in that respect, in that I don't have too much further to go."
Donald Ray Pollock will read from his work on Thursday, April 25, in Wallenberg Hall (inside Denkmann Hall, 3520 Seventh Avenue in Rock Island) as part of the River Readings at Augustana series. The event starts at 7 p.m.
For more information on Pollock, visit DonaldRayPollock.com.