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TBTS Reviews: Crimes in Southern Indiana

December 21, 2011

I’ll never talk down to southern Indiana again. Never again will I knock it as corn country spotted with cow towns, nor will I make jokes about it or about the intelligence and/or lineage of its residents. In fact, I think it’d be best if the sun doesn’t set on me there, ever again, not if even half of the stories in Frank Bill’s debut collection, Crimes in Southern Indiana, are inspired by real events and people.

From the first page – from the first paragraph – you know exactly what kind of book this is going to be:

Pitchfork and Darnel burst through the scuffed motel door like two barrels of buckshot. Using the daisy-patterned bed to divide the dealers from the buyers, Pitchfork buried a .45 caliber Colt in Karl’s peat-moss unibrow with his right hand. Separated Irvine’s green eyes with the sawed-off 12-gauge in his left, pushed the two young men away from the mattress, stopped them at a wall painted with nicotine, and shouted, “Drop the rucks, Karl!”

In other words, if you piss this book off, bad things are happening.

If you believe literature – and you should, brother – Appalachia is a rough-and-tumble kind of place. There’s a lot of beautifully done violence in its stories – Ron Rash being a fine example of evoking Appalachia in its terrible beauty. But there’s another school, much less poetic, much less romantic, that likes to strip that current of violence down to bare wires. You might look at a map and say I’m crazy, Appalachia’s over here and southern Indiana is way the hell over there, west of Louisville and Cincinnati both, but I’m here to tell you that map is a liar. Frank Bill’s southern Indiana is every bit as Appalachian as West Virginia and about three times as mean. Besides, it’s not as if I’m the only person saying this. Donald Ray Pollock was moved to say that Crimes in Southern Indiana “[b]lasts off like a frigging rocket ship and hits as hard as an axe handle to the side of the head after you’ve snorted a nose full of battery acid and eaten a live rattlesnake for breakfast,” which would have made me wonder about Donald Ray Pollock had I not already read The Devil All the Time.

What we have here is a brutal, nasty, bleak portrait of life at the very margins of society. These seventeen stories move fast, but I’d think twice before reading too many at a stretch. Bill’s stories are full of people getting by with whatever means they have left, and I don’t say that to somehow ennoble them. There’s not a lot of nobility floating around this book, just a lot of humanity, and Bill doesn’t harbor many illusions about what the word humanity means: “Everything a man survives in life is a lesson. Some lessons are taken, others are given. What J.W. learned from the war carries over to everyday life. Men lie. Men die. And one thing J.W. Duke can’t tolerate is lies.”

Bill has a natural gift for making prose pop, sounding more like James Ellroy than Cormac McCarthy. He brings to the page a sense of place that can’t be faked and a natural understanding of the workings of and reasons for crime. His sentences are tight and clenched like a fist around a roll of pennies. His dialogue is terse and natural and keeps the stories flying as character after character hurtles toward a bad end. It’s not perfect and not MFA-pretty, but you can feel the truth and the hardknuckled realism of each story – it smarts, but you can feel it. It won’t break your heart with its beauty. It might, however, stop it a few times on the way.

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