The crooked and the odd in a slice of Gothic Americana

Harvill Secker, £12.99

DONALD Ray Pollock was born in Knockemstiff, a ghost town in Ohio. Growing up and leaving high school early, Pollock was a truck driver and laborer at a local factory. Then, upon turning 50, he had “one heck of a midlife crisis”. Enrolling in a local creative writing program, Pollock became a cult hero overnight with the 2008 publication of Knockemstiff, a collection of nightmarish short stories. Having won two awards and multiple appearances in literary journals for his work, Pollock has now released his debut novel: The Devil All The Time.

It’s a harrowing look at American society, seen through the lives of people in a backward town in Ohio, told by a teenager called Arvin. There’s the descent into religious fervour and madness of Arvin’s ex-marine father who watches his wife Charlotte dying of cancer and the disintegration of a local lawyer’s life as he sneaks home from work early to watch his wife sleeping with the gardener. Preachers Roy and Theodore eat spiders and drink antifreeze (respectively) to prove their faith. Throw in a crooked sheriff, a pedophiliac minister and a couple of spontaneous murders and you have quite the story.

This is a brilliant piece of American literature, written in a macho, stripped-down style reminiscent of Hemingway. It makes use of extreme character behaviour to discuss society in much the same way that Fight Club’s Chuck Palahniuk managed. Perhaps most impressively, Pollock calmly describes each character’s motivations for their actions so that for the duration of the novel they almost make sense.

Pollock avoids overt morals or messages. Rather it’s up to the reader to make what they can out of a few key themes: religion in the wrong hands is dangerous, violence behaves like a contagious disease, and guilt is a terrifyingly strong emotion.

This is an unusual work by an unusual author. There are probably too many eaten spiders and murdered hitchhikers to make it a mainstream page-turner, but for anyone who likes American writing or a gothic read, this is not to be missed.