I love reading the gothic, particularly the southern variety. When I first began reading novels written in this tradition, many of them didn''t seem to have many dimensions. The characters and narrative appeared to lean a little too hard on Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner''s darker works, McCarthy''s Appalachian novels, or Carson McCullers’ small town loneliness. Some have stood out, such as Breece D’J Pancake . (If you haven''t read Breece D''J Pancake you should check out a copy of his collected works now. It’s breathtaking.) I mention Pancake because there are moments in The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock that remind me of his short story “Trilobites.” Both authors deftly capture fleeting, casual scenes that are reminiscent of quality flash fiction: the yellow film of tobacco smoke and stale coffee ambiance of small town cafes, patrons nursing hangovers and leering at young, disheveled waitresses. It''s a simple enough image and mostly used to establish setting, local color, and usually not integral to the central narrative. But when written effectively, these types of nuances skillfully project a mood, here casting a sickly pallor on characters and place.
By and large, Pancake is far too sentimental to be compared to Pollock. Most ''hillbilly noir'' makes you squirm a bit, makes you feel grimy, but it has dead aim on the heart while doing so. This book is almost all darkness. There are scenes that could be cut from Daniel Woodrell''s oeuvre, if Oliver Stone hijacked the scene for a rendition of Natural Born Killers. One needs to hunch over and strain one’s eyes at the spaces between the lines, to squint really hard to find anything coming close to redemption.