Crimes of the Working Class
The opening blast of Frank Bill’s debut collection Crimes in Southern Indiana introduces nine characters in a whirlwind of three stories and twenty-one pages. By the end, five of these desperate souls have been dispatched via shotguns, axes or knives; two others are bound tight and lying in open graves they have dug themselves; and the pair left standing—women, it’s worth noting—are wounded and bloodied. One of them, a gun-toting grandmother who shunts around an oxygen tank, is already dying of cancer.
Violence doesn’t merely pervade these stories: it defines them. Plot points hinge on acts of cruelty and betrayal. Characters lie, cheat, steal, murder, and bare false witness. Wives are beaten, heads explode, limbs are severed, faces are “stomped into cornmeal,” and noses are crushed “into chips of flint.” Since most of these tales were written for crime fiction websites like thuglit.com, this thematic element may not come as a surprise. Murder, drugs, double-crosses to the nth power—these are expectations of the genre. However, Bill transcends pulpy clichés by rooting these Crimes in the meth-soaked reality of the rural countryside. Poverty, desperation, addiction, unemployment, war veterans returning home—this is a portrait of 21st century America for anyone daring to look beyond the five o’clock news.
Great noir fiction lives in the mundane corners of the everyday, and the familiar crimes reported here are the kind you’d expect to see on a small town police blotter: A married couple murders the woman’s father. A prize-winning coon-hound is stolen out of a backyard. A disturbed ex-marine goes on a rampage. A cop shoots the Mexican junkie who slew his family. Bill takes pains to give most of his wounded characters a rounded history and depth, but some appear driven only by their basest instincts and a twisted sense of justice. If the more sensational tales lack nuance, the emotions are raw, immediate, and primal, which is refreshing for readers who feel the modern American short story has leaned a little too far towards understatement. Everything is laid bare, and the author neither justifies nor judges his characters’ actions.
When a man in ‘The Need” cuts off his victim’s ears, we are, at first, duly repulsed, but as the story churns to a close, we witness the heartbreaking root of his fixation. In “The Penance of Scoot McCutchen” a man murders his sick wife and her doctor, but here too, events build logically and acquire tragic force. And in one of the best stories of the collection, “The Old Mechanic,” we get an unvarnished look at a wife-beating member of the Greatest Generation, a man so in love with his own myth that he’s blind to the darkness of his own soul. He can’t fathom why his daughter or grandson might be afraid of him, and, in a fantastic scene, the old man brings the boy to a gun show to buy him a birthday gift. It’s in moments such as these where Bill’s writing transcends the label “genre” fiction. The other notable exception is “The Accident,” a portrait of a man lost in the sea of his own mind. Aside from the titular incident, it’s a rather quiet and melancholy story, and Bill seems a different writer entirely.
But make no mistake, Crimes is loyal to its tradition, and the majority of the plots do not drift along or sparkle with the dew of subtle epiphany. They hurtle, plunge and speed around every corner, with the action of one story often bleeding (quite literally) into the next. In the first sentence of the opening tale, “Hill Clan Cross,” two men named Pitchfork and Darnell “burst through [a] scuffed motel door like two barrels of buckshot” to reclaim a stash of weed stolen by their own sons. In the follow-up, “These Old Bones,” a teenager named Knee High is sold into sexual slavery to these same two men by her own grandfather; and in “All The Awful,” we witness her escape and rescue by the grandmother.
The bloodletting in Crimes does not reach the mythic proportions of, say, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Each death is quick, sudden, and feels all too real. Bill understands the cyclical nature of violence, and how revenge can spin out of control. In “A Coon Hunter’s Noir”, a wronged Vietnam vet marches to his enemy’s house, sets up steel fox traps at the bottom of the stairs, douses the perimeter of the house with gasoline, and smokes out his prey just like he did with the Vietcong; but despite this elaborate payback, the story doesn’t end well for him.
And in the opening of the brutal “Amphetamine Twitch”, a woman and her child are shot dead by an addict. Cut to the bereaved father, a police officer, who takes matters into his own hands. The narrative swings back and forth between hunter and prey until the final sequence, and just when you think you are reading a simplistic tale of revenge, Bill hits us with an ending so drenched with irony that it borders on the nihilistic.
Still, without the moral awareness of the consequences of violence, the stories would be merely exploitive; and crime fiction, too, as with any genre, can begin to look and sound the same unless the writer’s ear is sharp. Bill’s, by all evidence, is well tuned. He captures the unpolished dialect of the backwoods Midwest, which sounds both ugly and comic. A few samples:
“Who vouched for these two scrotums?”
“Coathanger whore… blowing coin on clothes and booze…”
“He beat five men into a state of stillborn. Can’t even sound out the alphabet no more.”
Crimes may be considered far too impolite and vulgar for a mainstream audience, but not for lack of merit; what readers may find most disturbing here is the bleak portrait of American poverty, which is given neither the sheen of romance nor the hope of redemption. It’s not a defense of fiction to say, “Well, it really happened,” but Frank Bill, undeniably, gives us a portrait of reality. The fictional people of Southern Indiana are, without question, at the bottom half of the 99%, and they are not going away.