When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.
(To quote Bob Dylan, as I’m wont to do more often than not. This time with good reason. Bob Dylan makes an appearance – albeit briefly – in the pages of Frank Bill’s masterful short story collection.)
This sentiment applies to nearly all of Frank Bill’s characters in his gritty, relentless debut short story collection Crimes in Southern Indiana. The stories are intricately intertwined and when taken as a whole, tell the stories of multiple generations of families – vicious, bloodthirsty, backstabbing, incestuous, drug-addicted, criminal families – but families nonetheless.
Set against the rural backdrop of southern Indiana, Bill’s collection tell the stories of the downtrodden and the deservedly damned. Every last word is brilliant. From ‘These Old Bones’ (a grandfather pimps out his granddaughter) to ‘Crimes in Southern Indiana’ (not for dog lovers), Bill presents a no holds barred vision of the impoverished, meth-filled landscape of the American Midwest. You’ll find no picket fences, no family game night, and no chance at redemption.
He’d burned his father’s home for insurance money. Shot Esther MacCullum’s dog dead in front of him for a debt he owed. Forced himself upon Needle Galloway’s fourteen-year-old daughter. Opened Nelson Anderson’s skull in the Leavenworth Tavern with a hammer for saying he’d ratted out Willie Dodson on a cross-country dope deal, even though he did it for local law enforcement. And today he’s sold his granddaughter, Knee High Audry, to the Hill Clan to whore out… Yeah, he thought, I’s a son of a bitch.
Despite the subject matter, there’s infinite appeal to be found in the visceral, eye for an eye (or two eyes for an eye, as the case may be) culture embraced by the characters of these stories. Good and evil are so closely connected that they often cannot be separated – it’s impossible to tell where one begins and the other ends. Frank Bill doesn’t mince words. He doesn’t make a harsh, unforgiving world sound (physically) beautiful the way Daniel Woodrell does. He doesn’t write with the empathetic undertones of Donald Ray Pollock. And he doesn’t have the sense of humor that Joe R. Lansdale innately possesses. Yet there is beauty, love, and humor present in the bleakest of moments throughout the stories. But make no mistake; the stories are incredibly violent and graphically so. Every single one of them. Nearly no one is spared and the body count is by no means negligible. If Frank Miller or Quentin Tarantino decided to write about the lives of rural criminals in small town Indiana, it would look a lot like this.
This is not a book for everyone. It’s not even a book for most people. In fact, I’m sure the Indiana Board of Tourism would like to sue Frank Bill for libel. If you have trouble stomaching violence against humans and animals*, if you find drug abuse and economic depression hard to process, or if a cross between pulp fiction and hillbilly noir sounds unappealing, don’t pick up this book. If by some small miracle I still have your attention, purchase Crimes in Southern Indiana immediately – it’s worth owning. Frank Bill has one of the most authentic, original voices I have read in a long time and a wonderful sense of place. It’s the story of survivors, of those who have been pushed beyond their limits, and of those who actions you hope always remain fictional. It’s brilliant. 5/5, but not for the faint of heart.
So are any of you willing to brave the murky, vitriolic writing of Frank Bill? Would it help if I told you he looked just like Zach Galifianakis? No? Didn’t think so. Where do you draw the line in dark literature?
Meth-riddled literature is rarely conducive to food recommendations, this is no exception. Thus there is no companion recipe for this review. If you looking for something to go with Crimes in Southern Indiana buy the cheapest beer you can find. Perhaps Falls City? PBR?
*Being the quasi-neurotic worrier** that I am, I ask you: am I open-minded or unbalanced***? Because I enjoyed this book without reservation…
**To end with Bob Dylan: All I can be is me – whoever that is.
***Bob Dylan Post Script: Sometimes it’s not enough to know what things mean, sometimes you have to know what things don’t mean.
(Anyone make it through all those post review caveats?)