Indiana’s mono-geography betrays its cultural diversity. It’s a long, lean state with factories, farms, and freaks, with Indianapolis rising up in the middle like the Emerald City. Hillbillies and college kids look at each other warily as they struggle for dominance. Folks across the Ohio River hurl basketball-related insults. Frank Bill’s debut story collection, Crimes in Southern Indiana gave readers a look at the dark side of this strange place. His southern Indiana is Southern in the same way its neighbor, Kentucky, is—the accent is right, but the geography is stuck in a limnal state of confusion. Bill’s stories are as rough as they come, hard packages of violence and sadness, tales of lives ripped apart by poverty and shame.
His debut novel fulfills the promise of his earlier work, but it’s not without its flaws. The book follows a large cast of characters, including desperate bare knuckles boxer Jarhead Earl, meth cook Chainsaw Angus and his sister, Liz, a backwoods prophet named Purcell, a vengeful cop named Whalen, and an unstoppable man named Fu. Their various plot lines dance and swirl around each other before taking them to the titular Donnybrook, a backwoods brawl filled with booze, drugs, and various meat cooked over open flames. “It’s like a Dead concert with fists,” says Ned, a fighter and Liz’s doomed companion.
Early on the book is episodic, each segment tightly constructed and complete. As it moves along the structure begins to reveal itself, the paths of the different characters feeling inevitable. At first Bill does a wonderful job of teasing the reader along by giving us quick glimpses into the lives of these people, little flashes of sex and violence, but the book becomes flabby in the middle. The story lines have a hard time coalescing, and the daisy chain of people done wrong, doing wrong, and seeking revenge, becomes strained and repetitive, like the reader is stuck in the same cycle as the characters.
Shifting from character to character for so long becomes frustrating, too, because we don’t get to root for or revile anyone for too long. The upside is most of these people aren’t the kind anyone would want to know, at least not too well.
Bill’s work is stark and visual, the kind of writing one can devour easily but never quite digest. He crafts the book’s many fight scenes with the grace of a choreographer, placing each character in the right place at the right time, with gruesome and often surprising results. During a fire fight at the home of Alonzo Conway, fuel thief and friend to Jarhead Earl, Bill captures the speed and complexity of the scene in simple, visceral language.
Other times, though, he won’t call a gun a gun, a strange tic considering this is a book full of them. Instead of gun he says it’s a “tool for killing” or a “warm piece of protection.” Gun is a hard, ugly word, and it does hard, ugly work. To avoid using it muddies the clarity of the prose and softens the impact. This is a habit Bill cures himself of by the book’s end.
Tonally, the stories of Purcell and Fu don’t match the story of the novel. Purcell first appears as a mystical center to the madness, a strange left turn from the trajectory of the plot. It’s an intriguing character bit which is mostly cast off as Purcell falls into a more traditional role as Jarhead’s sidekick. Fu’s story is also an anomaly, a slick action movie style character who seems incapable of dying. His story would work better on its own, but here he’s another body to punch and be punched.
By the time the action moves to the Donnybrook, the book’s violence feels like Bill is trying to outdo himself. The blood and guts factor goes beyond the reasonable and into the gratuitous. The violence is most effective when it’s off the page, about to happen or already passed. When Bill does that it’s thrilling, like a scary brother sharing a dark secret. When he does that your eyes go wide and you have to read it again.
The story finishes strong, so strong, in fact, that its flaws begin to feel necessary, like they’re telling us something. Throughout the story we see Jarhead Earl’s motivations for getting to the Donnybrook, as well as glimpses of his journey there. He literally ends up where he started, but we sense his transformation, though we don’t actually get to fully experience it. The story ends not with a cliffhanger, but with a promise that we’ll hear more from these characters.
The thought of what might come next speaks to Bill’s ability to hook his readers and keep them coming back. Just don’t expect to leave him without taking a beating.
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