Greetings, Story366! The string of fabulously cool and sunny days in Springfield ends with a stormy rainy day. I’m not going to discuss weather again—no one reads blogs to hear about weather in places where they don’t live—but the rain has canceled some zoo plans for me and the family, meaning I get my blog post up early, hoping for a clearing. I’ve noted this before, but Springfield’s zoo has this legendary attraction where you can actually feed the giraffes, stand on a deck and have them lick biscuits and lettuce out of your hand with their nine-inch black tongues. When you wake up and think that you’re going to have your hand licked by the nine-inch black tongue of a genuine African giraffe, and it doesn’t happen? Well, that’s enough to put a cloud in the sky of even the sunniest of days.
Speaking of dark skies, I just read the first three stories from Frank Bill’s collection, Crimes in Southern Indiana, an FSG Original (a straight-to-paperback book from Farrar, Straus and Giroux). If dark is the theme of the day, then Bill’s book certainly fits the … bill (sorry). These three stories are as dark, in-your-face, gritty, real, violent, sad, and shocking as anything I’ve read in a while, probably since Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff (no surprise that Pollock blurbs this book and Bill gives him a hefty thanks in the acknowledgments). The stories in Knockemstiff, though, had a more traditional approach to story, situations and settings and characters set up in a first paragraph, on a first page, a bit of exposition to explain where we were, why the incitation of the plot was going to matter. Bill, however, doesn’t bother with any of this, just launching into an incredibly dangerous, exciting, and violent situation in the first sentence of the first paragraph of the first story, “Hill Clan Cross,” today’s story of the day. The story’s protagonists, Pitchfork and Darnel, bust into a hotel room, breaking up a drug deal because the dealers, Karl and Irvine, are their employees (and more, it’ll turn out) and have stolen these drugs from them. Dodo and Uhl, the buyers, are stunned, wondering what the fuck is going on, but really, they’re at a drug deal in a motel (in Southern Indiana) and guys with guns have just busted through the door and are beating on them and tying their hands with barbed wire. Not a big mystery as to what’s going on: They’re all fucked.
So we have these three sets of guys, all of whom play different roles in this deal gone bad. How bad does it go? It’s not a very long story, like nine pages, and when shotguns and gym bags of marijuana and barbed-wire bindings are involved, things can only go in so many directions. Added in is the small-town reality: All of these guys know each other, deal with each other, live in the same vicinity. You don’t bust the handle of a shotgun across someone’s jaw, steal their bags of drugs, steal their piles of cash, and then just see them at church on Sunday, nod and smile and shake hands during that part where everyone shakes hands. Someone’s going to die. It might seem obvious, from the outset as to which pair(s) it’s going to be, but Bill hits us up with some surprises, never lets up on the gas to give us time to think about it too much, either.
And that’s just the first story. The first three pieces in Crimes in Southern Indiana act as a triptych, as people who were mentioned in “Hill Clan Cross” turn out to be the protagonists/antagonists of the next two stories, “These Old Bones” and “All the Awful.” If drug dealers blowing each others’ heads off doesn’t prove real and stark enough for you, that’s okay, because these folks also dabble in human sex trafficking—of their own underage family members—to pay off debts, to not end up in shallow graves, full of holes. These people are depraved and desperate and clearly live in a world different from most people’s, different from what society deems acceptable. And Bill scribes it for us, for our entertainment, and damn, he’s good at it.
On top of what happens to whom, the shock and directness of it all, Bill is also a master phrase-turner. If noir legends like Chandler and Hammett have their gumshoe rhetoric, Bill certainly creates his own vernacular, much in the spirit of writers like Pollock and Daniel Woodrell. Uhl, a gun pointed at his head, pisses himself, but Bill describes it thusly: “His crotch found warm fear.” Nobody simply bleeds, but instead: “Blood peeled like three-day-old biscuits.” This is the kind of language that’s peppered throughout, in the right doses, to make the reading of Bill’s stories as eventful as their events.
I’m not sure where Crimes in Southern Indiana goes after these first three stories, if we get more from the two families of bad eggs that make up this world, or if we just go off to other criminals in Frank Bill’s home region. Given my reaction to what I’ve read so far—I love these stories and my heart is still racing—I want to check it out.