by Frank Bill
4 out of 5 bare-knuckled stars.
You say you’d like to spend a weekend getting drunk out in the countryside while watching a bunch of rednecks beat each other bloody with their bare hands? I’ve got just the place. Toss a cooler loaded with beer into the back of your El Camino, do a bump of that crank you scored off that stripper back at the club, make sure that pistol under your seat has a round in the chamber, crank up that 8-track tape of Lynard Skynard and then hit the gas so you can join your fellow sports fans at the Donnybrook.
The first few pages of this book feature a guy nicknamed Jarhead robbing a gun store and cracking the owner’s head with the butt of a shotgun, and the craziest part is that Jarhead is the most sympathetic character in the book. There’s also Chainsaw Angus, a vicious street fighter and former lumberjack who earned his nickname when his face met the business end of one of his saws. His sister Liz partners with Angus in his new career of cooking meth, but since they hate each other Liz uses sex to rope in a new partner to take the latest batch and kill her brother. A Chinese martial arts expert is after Angus to collect on a debt he incurred by killing someone. A cop with a lot of ugly family secrets is out for revenge, and there’s someone who appears to be an honest-to-god prophet.
All of these characters and many more wind up double-crossing and fighting each other, and all of their paths converge at a bare knuckle brawling contest run by a sadistic backwoods kingpin.
You don’t have to take my word at how insane all of this is. Among the many blurbs praising the book are these words of wisdom from an expert:
“Good lord, where in the hell did this guy come from? Blasts off like a frigging rocket ship and hits as hard as an ax handle to the side of the head after you’ve snorted a nose full of battery acid and eaten a live rattlesnake for breakfast. One of the wildest damn rides you’re ever going to take inside a book.”
- Donald Ray Pollock, author of The Devil All the Time and Knockemstiff
Just to put this into perspective, that is Donald Ray Pollock, the guy who took hick lit to a whole new violent level saying that Frank Bill blew his mind. That’s kind of like if Hunter S. Thompson was in a bar watching another customer and said, “Sweet Jesus, but I’ve never seen anyone drink that much!”
As in his great short story collection Crimes of Southern Indiana, Bill mixes wild characters with over the top violence in a rural setting to good effect. This is part of the country where the citizens have little education and few job opportunities, and they’re all heavily armed. Add rotgut booze and narcotics to the mix and you’ve got a whole bunch of powder kegs that Bill detonates one after another.
Even though I enjoyed the hell out of this, there were a couple of problems with it. First is that just as in Crimes of Southern Indiana, Bill tends to overplay the ultra-violence. Call it the Garth Ennis Effect. In the right hands, graphic violence can add to a story outside of the gore just for gore’s sake like the torture porn that passes for horror these days. Bill has the Ennis touch of using it for maximum shock value and to make you feel the bone-crunching reality of it, but he quite never knows when to dial it down so after a while it can get repetitive. Almost every single interaction of characters in this book results in some kind of moment of pain. It adds to the fast pace of the storyline, but if you know that someone is getting their ass kicked or killed in some fashion in every scene, it loses it’s power.
I also didn’t realize that this is apparently the first book in a larger story so I was a little disappointed that the ending had little overall resolution and was mainly set-up for the next phase.
Still, these are minor quibbles about a book that I read with wide-eyes while frequently shouting, “Holy shit!” and “OUCH!”
Also posted at Goodreads.