I bought Brotherly Love, a discounted, yet signed, copy from the remaindered section of the bookstore where I used to work. At the time I was enamored by Pete Dexter, whose books Train and Paris Trout I had recently read. Both of those books are spare and menacing, at times brutally violent, but done in a masterful way. Brotherly Love is like those books, but to call the book spare is an understatement. Dexter takes his time – most of the book, really – fleshing out the main characters, cousins Peter and Michael Flood from a Philadelphia gangster family. As the plot slowly develops – or comes to a boil, one might say – it becomes clear that Peter wants out. But of course, Michael and his band of hoods keep dragging him back in. In Brotherly Love, Dexter doesn’t quite plumb the emotional depths of his characters as he does so effectively in Paris Trout and Train, and the reader is left with a book that feels empty and characters that feel doomed from page one.
When I picked up Restless, I expected the usual array of smart, twisted, unfortunate and hilarious characters that traditionally abound in William Boyd novels. I was pleasantly surprised at what I saw instead.Boyd, it seems, opted for a new genre in his last novel. Restless is a mystery that unfolds in a series of letters provided by an aging mother to a confused daughter. Ruth, a single mom and struggling PhD candidate at Oxford, is in a rut. Her inability to make decisions affecting her life and desire to be a good mother create an inescapable conflict and further plunge her to despair.Now, imagine for a second that you are 28 years old and your mother, a frail old British woman who lives in peace tending her garden at a countryside home, sits you down and says: “I used to be a spy, someone is trying to kill me on unfinished business, you will help me get that person.” That’s what happens to Ruth.And thus the reader is drawn into a historic journey beginning in the 1930s and ending in the late 1970s. Intertwined with Ruth’s thesis and her professors is the beginnings of her mother Sally Gilmartin’s career. And while the daughter struggles to find emotional satisfaction, the mother’s emotions are being abused. Whereas Ruth battles modern day evils attacking the individual, Sally is busy spreading misinformation in New York to draw the U.S. into World War II, being chased by Nazi spies and suspecting her own comrades in the fight against Hitler and communists.And of course there are the Boyd antics: Ruth’s son Jochen’s German father’s brother settles in her house announced; his anarchist girl follows; a student of hers falls in love with her and she fails to handle the situation delicately, and so on. In the meantime, the young Sally is hopping from France to England, Belgium, the U.S. and Canada.Boyd’s spy world makes for a read accurately captured in the title: restless. And although I missed the absurd histrionics of the writer in his latest work, a trace of wry humor lingers in the book and the piecemeal narrative tying past and future is, simply put, entertaining and gripping. As with all other Boyd novels I read, Restless left me thinking, really, is this the end, can’t I have some more, please?
In 1934, the year Flash Gordon and The Three Stooges debuted, A.J.A. Symons published his great “experiment-in-biography,” The Quest for Corvo. In it, Symons, an aesthete bibliophile, describes first reading Hadrian the Seventh, an obscure Edwardian novel. The author, Frederick Rolfe, is a dazzling eccentric. Without any link to aristocracy, he assumes the name Baron Corvo and claims that England should submit to Italian dominion. Symons spends several years tracing the history of the painter-novelist from his dismissal as a young ecclesiastic to his last days in Venice. A prolific, irascible writer, Rolfe becomes increasingly frustrated by his own obscurity and failed commercial success: in the words of Rolfe’s acquaintance, Leslie, he was “a self-tortured and defeated soul, who might have done much, had he been born in the proper era or surroundings.”
Reading The Quest for Corvo, from a safe distance, I relished reading Rolfe’s vitriolic letters, excerpts from his novels dense with Latinate neologisms and anecdotes about his idiosyncratic behavior. Chris Offutt, though, experienced first-hand life with The Difficult Writer: his father was a Rolfe-like pornographer and science-fiction writer named Andrew Offutt, who wrote under the alias John Cleve.
My Father, the Pornographer contains reflections on Appalachian childhood, the portrait of the artist as a father, and literary analysis of mid-to-late-century genre writing. Most of all, it is a heartbreaking, hilarious, and humane exploration of the filial relationship. The father is a cankered patriarch right out of Fyodor Dostoevsky. He grew up in Appalachia, eventually getting married and starting an insurance business. He had literary ambitions from the age of 14, though. One of the pleasures of My Father, the Pornographer is watching Chris, the accomplished short-story writer and author of Kentucky Straight and Out of the Woods, attentively reading his father’s work, trying to understand the man and the author. While at the University of Louisville, his father wrote a short story, “Requite Me, Baby,” or “The Other Side of the Story.” Chris writes:
In the past fifteen years, I’ve taught creative writing at a number of universities, colleges, and conferences. If I’d come across this story in my teaching, I would have considered it among the most promising works I’d seen. A remarkable intelligence operates behind the prose…The voice is reminiscent of contemporary writers at the time, a combination of Salinger and Hemingway. One strong note is the handling of time…If I were a teacher conferring with the twenty-year-old who wrote it, I’d be extremely supportive.
The reader asks: How much of this is filial loyalty, the impulse to protect or defend your father’s achievement? The allusion to J.D. Salinger and Ernest Hemingway seems hyperbolic. It would be unthinkable that a writing teacher today would compare an undergraduate student’s story in a contemporary workshop to, say, William Trevor or Alice Munro. But My Father, the Pornographer is a better book because it doesn’t assume a phony “objectivity” or “distance;” it’s a searching, open-hearted memoir that doesn’t contrive an easy position for its author in relationship to his father.
Though he was raised in the Depression and succored on Silent Generation values (family, duty, community), he inadvertently is drawn into the world of sci-fi conventions. It was a heady time to be working in science fiction: books like Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 were winning Nebula Awards. Chris’s mother cuts her hair, his father doesn’t cut his, and the house takes another spiritual direction:
The Bible vanished from the dining room, replaced by an equally large copy of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. Dad gave our property the official address of the Funny Farm, putting it on legal documents, stationary, and bank checks.
Over his career, his father wrote porn that touches on a range of fetishes, quirks, and predilections. Chris, the son, tries to catalogue the hundreds of published books but becomes “bogged down in subgenres.” He cultivated a porn-author persona, John Cleve, and ultimately in 1994 alone wrote 44 novels, including Punished Teens, The Chronicles of Stonewall 7: Captives of Stonewall, and Buns, Boots, & Hot Leather.
To meet market demand, Andrew created a highly efficient system. He “created batches of raw material in advance — phrases, sentences, descriptions, and entire scenes on hundreds of pages organized in three-ring binders.” Sections were dedicated to descriptions of the female body: breasts were “meaty pendants,” “bulging sides of her shapely creamballs,” and “thrusting artillery shells.” As he wrote, he would cut and paste the scenes into his novel and black out the used material.
Like Rolfe, he was easily offended but pathologically incapable of physical confrontation or reconciliation. Apparently, he had an entirely one-sided but long-running feud with Harlan Ellison. He aired his grievances in compellingly splenetic correspondence. When a fan wrote him describing his own wife’s painful and tragic death, with a post-script pointing out a grammatical mistake in one of his books, Andrew Offutt lashed out:
Yes, of course it is nitpicking to PS an otherwise nice letter, requesting time and money-effort from a writer — or any other human being, surely — with the quoting of a slip on p. 24, in which “less” appears rather than “fewer.” Nitpicking and dumb, because it is designed to lose friends and intimidate people. Everything else is fascinating, though, including the ghastliness of your wife’s dying.
My Father, the Pornographer manages to give full expression to all the melancholy of his life — the intellectual insecurity, the fiercely-protected isolation, the heroic work ethic, the creative tenacity, the protean gifts — without losing sight of just how difficult the man was to be around.
Expanding the scope and upping the intensity of his debut story collection, 2009’s excellent Knockemstiff, Donald Ray Pollock’s debut novel, The Devil All the Time (out this week in paperback), is a descent into a cauldron of blood spilled in the name of deliverance.
When the novel opens in 1957, Knockemstiff, Ohio (a real town, or “holler,” where the author was born, and near which he still resides) is a place where “four hundred or so people lived…connected by blood through one godforsaken calamity or another…” Pollock uses this setting to stage an examination of the devil’s omnipresence in life and death on earth, or at least on the back roads and in the backyards of his corner of the American interior.
Roaming among several intersecting stories, The Devil All the Time is a book about the intimate side of violence, and how this is maybe the only form that true worship can take. His characters peer as far as they can into the interior of evil, in themselves and in others, desperate to catch a glimpse of something real and beautiful hidden there.
Their stories aren’t about seeing through the darkness; they’re about touching the darkness and feeling how substantial it can be. Luckily for any reader who makes the trip to Knockemstiff, Pollock renders this darkness quite substantial indeed. Without ever verging into the supernatural, his brand of homespun grotesquerie achieves moments of genuinely satanic power.
Despite the dismal cloud that hangs over his vision of the Ohio small town, Pollock himself has recently lived out a pretty rare kind of success story. He worked as a laborer and truck driver for Mead Paper until he was fifty, then quit, got an MFA from the University of Ohio, and now, a few years later, has two books out, both garnering praise from critics as well as from more established noir authors like Chuck Palahniuk and the late William Gay. He’s even been hailed as an heir to Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews.
I don’t think it’s wrong to place him near the Southern Gothic tradition, but not only is he very much from and of the Midwest and not the South, his work is also not quite Gothic. His vision shares neither O’Connor’s faith in ultimate redemption buried in the depths of apparent damnation, nor Crews’ knack for recasting every sad array of lost souls as a carnival of lusty, drunken freaks. Both are forms of levity, while Pollock’s world is sunk deep into a rock bottom that only gets deeper.
The Devil All the Time presents rural American Christianity in the mid-20th century as a snake pit of sadistic preachers, copious bloodletting, and displays of faith forced upon congregations of superstitious illiterates. The set pieces may hark back to O’Connor, but, here, the center is as rotten as the skin.
Nevertheless, Pollock stakes out a theological center of a different kind. It is to be found in his inquiry into how people decide to do evil so as to grasp the simultaneous reality of good. Unlike in O’Connor, good is not a force that defeats evil from within, but rather a force that exists inside of evil and cannot be separated from it, nor ever reached by other means.
In Knockemstiff, it’s both or neither.
In the opening section, Willard Russell, a traumatized WWII vet, tries to cure his wife’s cancer by pouring sacrificial blood over a “prayer log” in the woods behind his house. He comes out here “every morning and evening to talk to God.” Thinking back on it years later, his son, Arvin, recalls the conviction with which his father “fought the Devil all the time.”
Out at this log, as in the many killing chambers that the novel winds its way through, spiritual life is conducted not only in private, but in secret. When Willard feels “the urge to get right with his Maker” he knows he’s “going to need some woods to worship his way.”
Only in the hushed enclosure of the woods, or in the speed and barrenness of the open road, can the soul manifest its hideous contours and admit the reality of its fear, free of the burden of declaring a kind of faith it doesn’t actually feel.
By standing or pretending to stand as bastions against the devil’s incursion, the town and the church deliver themselves wholesale into the devil’s clutches. The Devil All the Time, as a novel concerned with the manifold delusions and aspirations of private spirituality, makes its way ever further from the sites of official congregation, and deeper into the wilderness.
Watching his father lose his lifelong fight, Arvin learns that the devil beats everyone, taking especial pleasure in punishing those who tried to resist. Pollock’s devil will not be denied, but he will cut a deal.
Among those in the devil’s camp are Roy and Theodore, a spider-handling End Times preacher and his crippled sidekick. These two gleefully profane the pulpit of the Coal Creek Church of the Holy Ghost Sanctified, but they’re nothing compared to the Tennessee preacher who turns up later on and begins preying on young girls. Spiteful and morose, his only consolation is that “his mother had decided all those years ago that he was going to be a preacher. All the fresh young meat a man could stand if he played his cards right.”
And then Pollock gives us Carl and Sandy Henderson, a husband and wife who cruise the Midwest and the South, “always on the hunt…in a black Ford station wagon purchased for one hundred dollars…” They pick up young male hitchhikers, drive for awhile, and then Carl asks if they’d like to have sex with his wife.
Once the hitchhiker and Sandy are naked on a picnic blanket just out of view of the road, Carl interrupts them with a gun and a sharp object, hoping for the pleasure of dismembering the young man and photographing the process in loving detail before finally deigning to kill whatever’s left of him.
Marking the extreme end point of the road that all the characters are heading down, Carl believes that murdering strangers is “the one true religion, the thing he’d been searching for all his life. Only in the presence of death could he feel the presence of something like God.”
This need to call the devil onto the mortal plane underlies all of the novel’s expressions of cruelty and desire. The Tennessee preacher finds it by cheating on his wife, because “he needed for a woman to believe that she was doing wrong when she lay with him, that she was in imminent danger of going to hell.” By eliciting this fear in others he proves to himself that he still has “some chance of going to heaven…”
Carl looks at two old bigots in a diner. As he begins to fantasize about killing them, “it was electric, the sensation that went through him just then.” He “couldn’t explain it, but he sure as hell could feel it. The mystery… ”
This sensation only lasts a moment, and it’s only a sensation, not a tangible insight, but it’s enough to shock him out of the state of living death in which he is otherwise interred.
The novel may not be Gothic, but the grotesque is vital to both its aesthetic and its theology.
In Knockemstiff and the many middles of nowhere that surround it, the degradation of the body is not a mirror for the degradation of the soul. It is, rather, a natural and simultaneous counterpart to it.
Carl’s “belly was starting to hang over his belt like a peck sack of dead bullfrogs,” and “his fat, pale, unshaved face looked like some cold and distant star.” Sandy, the “bait” that lures the hitchhikers in, is “rail thin and dirty-looking. Her face was caked with too much makeup, and her teeth were stained a dark yellow…” Overhead, “the sun popped out like a big, festering boil in the sky.”
Since death is so prevalent and so vivid, it’s easy to forget the role that life plays. But the grotesque, coming from the idea of the “grotto,” where entities bubble up in endless random forming and reforming, has to allow life and death to bleed together as equally mutable states of being, just like good and evil.
Out at the prayer log, Arvin and his father watch as “maggots dripped from the trees and crosses like squirming drops of white fat.” This shrine doesn’t work to prevent death, but it does work to open a grotto in the Ohio woods.
Unlike much of the existentialist tradition, The Devil All the Time is about fullness, not about emptiness. Throughout its engagement with murder and death, the novel’s focus is always on that which remains on earth: the murderer, the corpse, and the feeling of the devil’s presence, not of God’s absence. There is no transcendent escape from the mire, but, the deeper in you sink, the richer things become.
Remembering O’Connor’s statement that her stories dramatize “the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil,” I asked myself whether there’s any grace in the territory held by Pollock’s devil.
I think not exactly. Rather than attesting to the stable reality or unreality of grace, Pollock attests to the reality of the human need to keep looking. The novel descends into the same conundrum as its characters, sympathizing with their plight but never claiming an overarching perspective from which to judge the efficacy of their pursuits. Pollock stands by his disdain for preachers by never becoming one.
All that’s clear at the end is that if the divine cannot find its way into this world through piety and prayer, it’ll find another way, enlisting the help of anyone willing.
The willing here are, of course, those who become agents of extreme violence. The Devil All the Time is not a book against or even really about violence. It’s a book of violence.
So why go where it wants to take you?
I don’t know if I believe in God or the devil. But I do believe in fear – fear of unseen forces, of other people, and of myself.
There’s a part of me that wants nothing more than relief from this fear. It wants to read a book like this and say, “These are just bad people, doing bad things, all of it made up.” This is the part that wants to lock the door when it hears the devil knocking, and then pretend not even to have heard.
But underneath this is a part of me that terrifies the other part. It’s a part that derives pleasure and even nourishment from inhabiting the minds of characters like these, granting them reality by consenting to imagine them.
It’s the part of me that, like all of the monstrous people in this book, just wants to touch the mystery. It wants to believe that this mystery exists on earth, and not in some other world that can only be glimpsed in dreams, or that must be accepted on a preacher’s say-so.
I don’t think I could touch it by doing the things that Pollock’s characters do – that’s why I’m driven to reading and writing – but I wouldn’t be a reader and writer at all if I couldn’t relate.
It’s the part of me whose greatest fear is not of hearing the devil at my door, but of not letting him in when I do.