07 March 2012

Tournament of Books '12: Hiding from THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME

For those who like their Cormac McCarthy just a little more tender.

Donald Ray Pollock created the rural Ohio area chronicled in (and giving the name to) his first book KNOCKEMSTIFF as a microcosm for mid-20th-century depressed America, venal and corrupted even when it tries to do good. Even the one true innocent in THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME is eventually turned by his environment, the poverty and lack of community in his small town slowly curdling inside his chest. America!

That innocent for me was Arvin, the son of a war vet and a waitress who loses both those parents in a manner so grim* the townspeople he encounters afterward are afraid of him.Taken in by his grandmother, who is also raising a girl abandoned by her father (whose mother also came to a grisly end), Arvin grows up wary and spoiling for a fight in a town of thieves, cheats and murderers, all with perfectly respectable public faces. It's like an even darker side of WINESBURG, OHIO. If there's anything fundamentally good left in Arvin, it's because his grandmother tries to shield her charges from Knockemstiff's worst faces as long as she can.

Finding out what happens to Arvin kept me furiously turning pages even as the people he crosses paths with go from garden-variety unsavory to icky to truly depraved. Sometimes it's impossible to read a character without wishing he would just be okay on some kind of cosmic level (even as you know it's not possible). In terms of plotting, Pollock really delivers in bringing several other characters around Arvin into his trials. He's a fairly new author (THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME is only his 2nd book) and I will be anxiously awaiting his next book even as I fear to crack the cover.

ToB first-round opponent: THE SENSE OF AN ENDING, a book I didn't get to because I was stubborn and refused to buy a novella at hardcover novel prices. (I didn't mean to get all fist-shaky about it, but truly it wasn't worth it to me. Why, that's nearly 14 cents a page!) That said, I'm predicting this one will fall Pollock's way because he's the underdog against Booker Prize winner Barnes. Later today I'll put up my whole bracket, because hey, the tournament is here! In fact, this is the first matchup, tomorrow (with Emma Straub judging).

*For me it was right up there with the famous tree in BLOOD MERIDIAN. The (spoiler) tree of dead babies. That gross and horrifying. Have fun! "Oh hey, what are you reading?" "Just a book with a tree of dead babies in it. How was your weekend?"


jess s said...

I read sense of an ending. You know, if we were one person, I think we'd have read the whole TOB. Anyway I thought the Barnes book was a great read but my money is on this Devil book due to the aforementioned Booker prize.

Ellen said...

If we had only thought to split the work! But then someone would have spent most of the time on 1Q84. I thought it was a pleasant assignment anyway.

jess s said...

I read 2/3rds of 1Q84 before it made the list, so I was really well-poised to get through it but the rest of the books distracted me. I got hung up on Last Brother and Stranger's Child -- neither grabbed me enough in the first 50 pages to make me want to finish them, so.... I decided not to waste my time on Green Girl after you read it and wrote about it. I'm near the end of Tiger's Wife, and I haven't been able to get Cat's Table or Open City from the library, but I read the rest. I think it's the best I've ever done, only because I had read at least 4 of them before they were announced.

And, well, it was a good learning experience so next year I can hit them all in a more strategic fashion!