The Devil All The Time by Donald Ray Pollock

Well howdy there friends! It’s been a little while. How have you been? How’s your life? Now that I’m finally done organizing bachelorette parties and almost balling while trying to give speeches and drinking my body weight in fermented, tasty beverages, we can finally get back to the thing that brought us all here: delightful, delicious, wonderful books.

Or, you know, this one.

Now before we get into the review I want to make clear that there are things that I did really like about this novel. Pollock is a hell of a writer, and even when I wasn’t having any fun, I was still burning through it, pulled from one situation to the next to see where it lead. That’s enough, in my opinion, to classify this as a good book, even if it’s not a particularly enjoyable one.

Unfortunately, you can be the wordsmith of our age, writing the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read, but if your character work is lacking, you’re going to lose me. The reason that I read is to experience other people’s lives, to slide myself into the brain of someone else. It’s why I’m here. And I’m not against doing that with a vile person every now and again, but…they have to feel real. I have to buy it. Every character in this book was a caricature. All of them the vilest, slimiest, most self-serving pieces of trash that humanity could come up with. So over the top in their quirky grossness that they didn’t even really seem human anymore. The first time he introduced a couple of them I was intrigued, the second time a little wary, and by the fourth or fifth just tired of it. If they weren’t dumb and vile to their bones they were evil. If they were neither, if there was a single ounce of goodness in them, then they were pathetic and doomed to suffer. It was just an unending slog of sadness and pain, with nowhere to look for redemption of any kind.

Maybe that’s the crux of this whole thing. No redemption for anybody. And yes, I know, not every story needs it, not everybody needs to find absolution, but I don’t feel like there was a single satisfying character arc in this whole book. Shitty people kept being shitty till they died from it, nobody got any better, nobody learned any lessons, nobody did anything at all, except for damage and wound and die. Even the main character, the one I think you’re supposed to relate to the most, doesn’t change much. After the first thirty or so pages he grows into a man who uses violence to solve his problems, and that’s where he stays until the end. And he is better than the others, but he’s not good. He’s motivated by a slightly more moral viewpoint than almost anybody else in the novel, but he’s still brutal. He may not want to kill, but when he’s backed into a situation where he feels like he has to, he does. Over and over again. To the point where it’s tiresome, where I didn’t see what the author was trying to say, if he was trying to say anything at all.

I’d recommend this book for people who like southern gothics that tend towards the gritty and filthy and violent, people who like their characters as gross and mean and pathetic as they can get them, and anyone who doesn’t mind a story where the morale is “people are shitty and will probably try and kill you”.

VBR

Sunset and Sawdust by Joe R. Lansdale

Hey there my beautifuls!

The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and because of my crippling laziness and attachment to sweatpants and my couch, I’m going to avoid all those gross outdoor things and write a second review today!

Huzzah!

Now for a severe tonal shift.

Disclosure at the top. This book has a lot of misogyny in it. It opens with an attempted rape, and there’s shitty dudes treating women shittily all throughout. It’s the type of thing that would normally put me off a book but…I dunno. The author treats the misogynists in the book like they deserve to be treated (badly), and the female characters have tons of agency and grit. The people who discount them are quite clearly framed as being, not just villains, but short-sighted, close-minded, and stupid. It didn’t really bother me at all, but I know some people don’t like any of that kind of thing in their stories, and I get it.

I love Joe R. Lansdale. There’s something about his voice and the way he writes dialogue that just gets into my head, under my skin. His books are always fast and fun and filthy (in real life I’ve got the mouth of a Victorian era dock worker, but every now and again he’ll turn a phrase that catches me off guard). They’re also really unpredictable. He has this way of making it seem like everything is unstable- who the main character is, what the plot is actually about, who’s going to make it to the end. And not in a “bait the audience for cheap thrills” way *cough cough* walking dead *cough*, or in a “wait till you see what ridiculous twist I have in store for you, even though it isn’t really properly motivated by the story” (do I have to do another cough thing, or do we all know that I’m talking about M. Night Shyamalan) way. It’s just that these people seem to get themselves into legitimately dangerous, precarious situations, and you feel like if the story called for their deaths, Lansdale wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger.

There is a little bit of male-gazey stuff with the protagonist (she’s hot and chesty and e’rybody knows it), but again, it didn’t bother me too much. My engagement with the story and my investment in the characters just carried me right past it.

Anybody who knows me knows I love a good mystery/crime book, and I’m a sucker for anything set in the south, but even if you’re not as into those things as I am, you should give this book a shot. Quick, fun, and well done. More Sunset please!

 

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