Calculated violence

The Devil All the Time, by Donald Ray Pollock, Vintage, RRP£7.99, 261 pages

It’s 1958, and in Knockemstiff, Ohio, 10-year-old Arvin Eugene Russell watches Willard, his half-crazed and suicidal father, offer up road kill on a makeshift altar in the woods in a desperate bid for a miracle to cure his wife Charlotte’s cancer. Willard’s thorough pulverisation of a man who questioned Charlotte’s good character was the “best day” of Arvin’s childhood; and this spare, calculated violence and the powerful memory of bloodletting follow Arvin into a difficult adolescence.

Pollock’s compelling novel combines pared-down dialogue and muscular prose to sustain a menacing atmosphere and a sense of foreboding. Arvin’s path later collides with low-life characters including a paedophile preacher, a bent sheriff and a murderous couple preying on hitchhikers. This compact debut novel offers visceral characterisation and sharp plot lines that keep the pages turning.

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