By Jonathan Woods.
Crimes in Southern Indiana, Frank Bill, Farrar Straus Giroux 2011
Southern Indiana, viewed from a touring Harley hog or from images pulled off the web, is a picture postcard land of rolling bucolic farm country, thickly wooded limestone hills and ridgelines and rich bottomland along the banks of the Ohio and Wabash Rivers. But after reading Frank Bill’s blazing, apocalyptic stories collected in Crimes in Southern Indiana, you’ll come away with a completely different view. In Bill’s mesmerizing collection of 17 crime stories, southern Indiana is transformed from a paradise of the American heartland into an anarchic old Testament rural Gomorrah where an eye for an eye is the least of a person’s worries.
Bill’s fictional world is raw and unrelenting. If in reading Faulkner’s classic southern gothic crime novel Sanctuary your stomach lurched when the impotent gangster Popeye raped Temple Drake with a corncob, you’d best keep a supply of Tums on hand while reading Crimes in Southern Indiana. The three linked stories that open Bill’s collection will either grip you by the cojones (or the female equivalent) and send you reading hell-bent for leather to the very last page or send you back to your book dealer to exchange Bill’s book of tales for something touchy feely and blandly mainstream literary. It’s not that Crimes in Southern Indiana is devoid of feelings, it’s that the feelings flowing from its pages are primordial and drenched in Shakespearian blood lust. I read the book hell-bent for leather.
In the first three stories in Crimes in Southern Indiana (‘Hill Clan Cross,’ ‘These Old Bones,’ and ‘All the Awful’) two young drug buyers are summarily executed by pistol shots to the face after digging their own graves, a grandmother blows away her husband of a lifetime after learning he has sold his granddaughter into sex slavery and the granddaughter, using a knife to the jugular, a double-sided axe and a Remington 11 semi-automatic .12-gauge shotgun, eviscerates and kills just about everybody else involved. All this in a mere twenty pages. Bill’s prose does not tarry over descriptions of winding dirt roads, sylvan streams and fog-shrouded woodlands. It is action in motion writing that rampages from page to page like Attila the Hun hard riding across the Asian steppes.
Yet there is also an intense, uniquely original clarity in Bill’s writing. He can summon up a character with a couple of sentences like no one else I’ve read in recent memory. Here’s his description from ‘Amphetamine Twitch’ of a police officer who has just learned of the brutal murder of his wife and son:
Detective Marshall’s charred hair matched the bags beneath his vision of flesh gift-wrapping bone. His black tie hung loose from the open neck of the white button-up. The bottle of Jim Beam met his lips. Eroded his guilt. “Should’ve stayed home that night,” he mumbled.
And of the meth-addled killer:
Alejandro pulled into the small town’s pay-by-the-week flop, slop, and drop motel. He stepped from the idling Buick. His complexion was greasy dishwater with eyes floating in fire. His head twitched, shoulders jerked, while his hand went from etching open old wounds to fisting a door dotted by body fluids.
And Bill’s description of the corpse of a young boy from the only ghost story in the collection ‘Trespassing Between Heaven and Hell': “The boys body resembled an overcast day, with lost milky eyes and violet lips, as they loaded him onto the gurney.”
The names of Bill’s characters are names you’ve never heard before, unless perhaps you were born and raised in southern Indiana. Names like Darnel, Dodo, Uhl, Elmo Sig, Knee High Audry, Pitchfork, Deets, Ray Ray and Pine Box Willie. These names conjure up a foreign country far removed from the urban and suburban techno worlds of Westchester, Orange and Marin Counties, of Manhattan, Laguna Beach and Palo Alto. And as a stranger entering this strange land, know, reader, that Beelzebub and all his temptations are lurking in the fallen Arcadian world of Frank Bill’s imagination.
Several of Bill’s stories brought to mind the grotesque and haunted characters in Sherwood Anderson’s classic book of stories of small town Midwest American life: Winesburg, Ohio. In ‘The Penance of Scoot McCutchen’, for instance, a man wanders from town to town seeking salvation from an act of violence in his past. But the majority of Bill’s tales are the direct descendents of Cormac McCarthy’s doomsday vision in his novel Blood Meridian. As readers we are distanced from the relentless killing and maiming within the pages of Blood Meridian by the fact that it is an historical novel, describing events occurring in 1849-1850. The novel’s elaborate Biblical prose also gives a mythic quality to McCarthy’s mayhem. Crimes in Southern Indiana, on the other hand, is in the here and now. Its violence and murder is as in your face as news footage of the battle of Fallujah in Iraq. The 20th Century was the bloodiest century in human history and we’re off to a good start in continuing that record into the 21st Century. From that perspective the graphic violence and nihilism in Crimes in Southern Indiana is merely a reflection of the world we live in. The world we have wrought.
In ‘A Rabbit in the Lettuce Patch’ Ina, kidnapped by some rural thugs for sex, fights for her freedom after overhearing their plans to do her in:
Ina exploded the television over Cecil’s skull. Lester was right behind him, wedged in between not wanting to get caught and unsure about killing Ina. He felt a pinch of relief when Cecil tumbled to the floor. Until Ina came at him like a starved leper in search of food, screaming, “Why’d you do this to me?”
The fingers of both of her hands spread wide. Flashes sparked in her head as she pushed Lester backwards across the kitchen….Lester lost his footing and his skull met the kitchen countertop’s edge. By the time he hit the mildewed floor, his mind and all his motor skills were heated peanut butter. He was blinking in and out, and Ina began stomping him…
Humor, albeit surreal and baroque, lurks in Bill’s pages as well. I found myself laughing out loud at the bizarre and ultimately horrific antics of the character suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in ‘The Accident’ after having witnessed a horrible elevator mishap. And in ‘Old Testament Wisdom’ after a brutal beating in a tavern two layabouts who witnessed the event engage in this grotesquely amusing bit of repartee:
…Behind the bar Poe talked on the phone to an operator about needing an ambulance. Ty walked over and said, “God almighty,” then chugged his Old Style. Karl said, “I didn’t see anything, did you?” And Ty replied, “Not a damn thing.”
Sex in Crimes in Southern Indiana is rare, mostly violent and nonconsensual. In ‘Cold, Hard Love’ Bill spins a bit of the old nookie nookie worthy of Macbeth and his bride. Here are Carol and Bellmont, husband and wife, immediately after murdering Carol’s father and beating unconscious a local clod named Mule:
A craving spread through Carol’s frame as she tugged his face to hers, feeling the savage jolt of lips and the violent twitch to tendons. She fingered the buckle of his pants, pushed them down to his ankles. Kicked her shoes free, unbuttoned and squirmed from her own pants. Bellmont…ripped her panties from her with his left, keeping his eyes on Mule, who lay on his side, his ribs raising and lowering slowly. Carol flung Bellmont against the kitchen wall, locked her legs around his waist. Met the stab of his pelvis into hers as she bucked a violent teeter-totter of cold, hard love.
Frank Bill’s stories are about ordinary people carried over the edge by drugs, madness, desperation, greed, lust, longing, revenge and the accident of birth. From the depths of this savagery some of the characters give voice to a distant lament that their lives have become consumed by such devilry. Crimes in Southern Indiana provides a cycle of cautionary tales, brilliantly wrought, of the chaos and anarchy that lurks like a waiting plague beneath the veneer we call civilization.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jonathan Woods divides his time between Dallas, Texas and Key West, Florida. His book of pulpy crime stories Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem (published by New Pulp Press) recently won an indie 2011 Spinetingler Award for best crime short story collection. The editors of New York Magazine rated Bad Juju mid-brow brilliant in their cultural Approval Matrix for April 26, 2010, calling it: “Hallucinatory, hilarious, imaginative noir.” Jonathan’s crime novel, A Death in Mexico, will appear from New Pulp Press in April 2012.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, September 15th, 2011.