It's kind of hard to pin down what Pollock is accomplishing here without listing what he avoids doing. A quick snapshot summary (the claustrophobic limits of small-town life are backdrop to a sequence of interwoven tales of degradation and violence, including a husband-wife serial-killer team, killer-preachers on the lam with the carnival, a good number of knuckle-dragging drinkers and rapists and pedophiles and your more run-of-the-mill no-hope losers, and a central bildungsroman protagonist being relentlessly beaten down but coming through it sort-of semi-heroically) suggests a number of familiar tracks:
--sleazy grindhouse thrillride, reveling in the muck;
--gritty vicious "realism," reveling in the author's careful avoidance of thrills or revelry in the muck;
--high-falutin' dark-America allegory, reveling in the symbolics of the muck.
Pollock's novel isn't really any of these. There are hints of Jim Thompson and James Cain, a bleak sense of viciousness in everyday life which is operatically hyperbolized in a sick, pervasive criminality--but with an empathy for the plight of all, including those doing the crimes. I think what startled me most was the compassion woven through the narrative, even as its characters and actions were almost uniformly repugnant.
And like Thompson and Cain, while often quite sad and never less than pitch-black in tone, there is also a carefully-modulated sense of dry wit. No laughing at, no comfortable ironic distance, no gleeful cackling at the gun-totin' yokels -- something harder, tougher, more thoughtful.
Yet no whiff of the Big Purpose. The novel's title derives from an early aside describing the protagonist's father, who is locked into an everyday war, envisioning the need to fight that devil all the time. . . But we aren't philosophizing, slumming it in pursuit of some Grand Design (or, more often, the relentless critique of a Grand Design). The publisher references Stone's Natural Born Killers
, but I think Pollock also sidesteps easy American allegories. There's a much more interesting particularity and fine-grained detail to this book, and--again--a compassion that rebuts simplistic satire.
And, while I think it's not going to convert those who don't have a taste for the grand guignol, the novel is also incredibly well-structured in the long-haul, sharply-drawn at each local scene. It was a great read.