Frank Bill's Hardcore Stories: Crimes in Southern Indiana

Far­rar Straus Giroux made an interesting—and exciting—choice when they pub­lished Frank Bill's linked col­lec­tion Crimes in South­ern Indi­ana. Nev­er known for hav­ing crime fic­tion or indeed for hav­ing books about any­thing oth­er than upper class lit­er­a­ture or lit­er­a­ture in trans­la­tion, this first selec­tion of their new fic­tion line, Orig­i­nals, fair­ly screams its dif­fer­ence from the rest of their list.

Frank Bill lives in rur­al Cory­don, Indi­ana and sub­scribes to—among oth­er things—a fair­ly well-known sub­genre of South­ern lit­er­a­ture called grit lit. Asso­ci­at­ed at first with Har­ry Crews (and per­haps trac­ing its roots a lit­tle far­ther back to Flan­nery O'Connor) and count­ing among its mem­ber­ship these days a geo­graph­i­cal­ly diverse group of writ­ers includ­ing some Appalachi­an and oth­er regional/rural and crime lit­er­a­ture, this ad hoc group is long on place and char­ac­ter and often short on plot. Not so with Frank Bill, whose inter­est in and love for crime fic­tion and plot shine through­out Crimes and give his sto­ries a whip-crack sharp­ness and for­ward move­ment many lit­er­ary writ­ers ought to emulate.

From the first para­graph of the first sto­ry, "Hill Clan Cross," Bill ham­mers at a reader's atten­tion immediately.

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!"

The first sim­i­le of many to come, those two bar­rels of buck­shot begin to clear away any rogue expec­ta­tions one might have about what crime fic­tion bol­stered by a healthy dose of the lit­er­ary looks like. Bill also has a curi­ous habit of drop­ping sub­jects from his sen­tences, which at first con­fus­es, but becomes a sort of on-the-page stut­ter one can read through and count on to break up the nor­mal rhythms of the sen­tence and ready a read­er for the often jagged plot movement.

It must be said as well that mechan­i­cal­ly, these sen­tences, and thus some of the sto­ries, can be a rough ride. Some­times clunky metaphors and descrip­tors adjoin and sep­a­rate seem­ing­ly at ran­dom, and oth­er­wise per­fect­ly use­ful sen­tences are cut up and refash­ioned to Bill's pur­pos­es of angu­lar­i­ty and sud­den­ness. From "Amphet­a­mine Twitch", we see "The bot­tle of Jim Beam met his lips.  Erod­ed his guilt." Not a bad pair of sen­tences by any means, but a styl­is­tic quirk that begins to wear after three or four stories.

Anoth­er more humor­ous quirk includes writ­ing in the nomen­cla­ture of every firearm a char­ac­ter uses, and there are many. Arma­ments in Cory­don are prop­er­ly diverse, I'm hap­py to say, as with many coun­try set­tings, and with those guns the crim­i­nals move the arc of the col­lec­tion inex­orably for­ward one shot­gun blast at a time. I'm just sur­prised and dis­ap­point­ed nobody drove up in a fuck­ing tank. Despite that short­com­ing, and the fact that the awful crimes in the book do occa­sion­al­ly pale when com­pared with what the news brings dai­ly, Bill makes his char­ac­ters feel the effects of these guns and those crimes and beyond that, man­ages to inject his character's sto­ries with an inevitable fate that can, if one is lucky, be kept at bay, but every drug deal gone bad, every jack­light­ed deer, every sense­less mur­der or hor­rid sex­u­al crime feels like a small and prob­a­bly tem­po­rary release of the pres­sure rur­al life often brings.

Often, in the mid­dle of a rur­al nowhere (remem­ber it's always somewhere for the inhab­i­tants, though) there's noth­ing to do but drink and drug and make up dra­ma. And shoot guns. It's just that Bill's peo­ple shoot them in crimes instead of plink­ing or shoot­ing wood­chucks for a quar­ter apiece. And that sense of the coun­try sur­round­ing the char­ac­ters actu­al­ly feels more than inevitable; place is a great weight on all of these char­ac­ters, and crime is the way Bill's peo­ple work off that weight, their means, maybe, of get­ting atten­tion when the news­cast­ers for­go their jobs and con­cen­trate on the coasts rather than that oft-ignored fly­over zone called 'the rest of the country.'

Frank Bill's Indi­ana is a place I feel deep in my skin now, not for the crime nec­es­sar­i­ly, but more for the atti­tude of the char­ac­ters and the place that claims them, the land where they live. There but for the grace of God go I, pret­ty much, run­ning slow­ly in place for my next turn round the earth, some­where rur­al with lit­tle cul­ture, lit­tle desire, and no oppor­tu­ni­ty to make any­thing good hap­pen, a place you run from, not to. Close your eyes. Imag­ine a place like that, and you'll prob­a­bly remem­ber Able Kir­by and Moon Flisport and Knee High Audry, and the oth­er unfor­tu­nate folks revealed for our edi­fi­ca­tion and enjoy­ment so well in Crimes in South­ern Indi­ana.

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2 Responses to Frank Bill's Hardcore Stories: Crimes in Southern Indiana

  1. Charles says:

    read­ing this right now. so far so good. i even found it at barnes and nobles.

  2. Frank Bill says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Rusty. Be well my friend.

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