The Short Version: Tales of – well, pretty much exactly what the title states, really. Crimes of all types, in Southern Indiana but also the surrounding Midwest. Drugs, love, booze, guns – the whole, as it were, shebang.
The Review: Frank Bill’s brilliant firecracker of a debut novel, Donnybrook, gets its start near the end of Crimes in Southern Indiana in a story called “Cold, Hard Love.” And Bill’s career is starting here too; there’s a sense, in this collection, of a writer coming into being – in a way that Donnybrook showed him as a youth of sorts (metaphorically), all “look at how fucking crazy I can be!” It’s a strong introduction to a decidedly original voice.
And it kicks off in brilliantly Bill-ian fashion, with four linked stories of revenge and crime and the folks of Southern Indiana generally being both terrifying and hilarious. Two heavies, drug men named Pitchfork and Darnel, burst through a door “like two barrels of buckshot” – and right there, first sentence of the first story, you basically know all you need to know about Bill’s writing. There’s something funny about these stories while at the same time the violence is very real. The body count is probably higher, per capita, than just about any other story collection I can think of – but the laughs are pretty high up there too.
Of course, it’s not all fun and games. Some of the stories have a decidedly serious bent and several of them have a whole lot of heart. Unexpected heart, you might say; you don’t exactly expect these nutjob wackos to inspire that sort of emotion but when they do, it packs all the more punch. “The Old Mechanic” is particularly startling in this respect – wouldn’t do to give away the what and the why but let’s just say it packs a wallop that brought me almost to tears at the end. Considering how pedal-to-the-metal fast and furious his novel was, I was pleasantly surprised to see Bill working in a different register.
As with any collection, some stories stand out stronger than others. I found that I liked the loosely connected stories or even the ones with recurring characters (Moon pops up so often I lost count) best and I think it’s a testament to Bill’s true skill at storytelling: he’s a man meant for lean, longer pieces even if they’re just connected vignettes. There’s something about his way of making individual moments completely self-contained while also delivering a larger arc that feels… to call it ‘efficient’ might seem too utilitarian, too academic for something so visceral. But that’s also perhaps the best term – he doesn’t mince words, he doesn’t dick around. He comes in like those barrels of buckshot and is gone in almost the blink of an eye, leaving you reeling and hungry for more.
Rating: 4 out of 5. A solid collection of delightfully messed-up stories. Some of them might turn your stomach, some of them might make you laugh so hard you cry – and some of them might do both in the space of a single story. Bill is a unique voice, the way he brings humor into otherwise serious moments. It’s what distinguishes him from the others working in similar genres, like Donald Ray Pollack or Daniel Woodrell, and it’s what make him such a livewire of an author. Reading this gave me joy as I recalled moments of sheer craziness from Donnybrook and actually, in light of the info I’ve heard about the impending sequel to that book, makes me think even more highly of it than I did. I am a fan; I can’t wait to see what batshit insanity comes next.