What is it about crime fiction that inspires reviews and interviews written in a pulpy, purple prose more clichéd than that found in the work being reviewed? I don't know, but I'm not doing it.
I'm not going to tell you that Frank Bill — the Corydon-based author whose first book, the short story collection Crimes in Southern Indiana, was released this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux — is a compact, muscular sparkplug of a man, trained to kill with a chop and a kick by the finest dojo master in the tri-state area. That he was rendered mad as a rabid, class-conscious dog by years working in a paint additive factory. That he was further un-centered by a near-deadly explosion in that factory that sent him into a deep, dark depression. And that he's obsessed with serial killers, crime families and coon hunting as both sport and profession.
No, Publisher's Weekly, you really won't need to have "brass knuckles handy when reading" Crimes in Southern Indiana, the first book released as part of Bill's two-book contract with FSG. The Fight-Club-in-the-wilderness novel Donnybrook is on the way next year. Derek Nikitas, author of Pyres, will I really need "a neck brace after whipping through these wild, wonderful, whacked-out stories"? Only if I read them while careening through the woods on a three-day bender, narrowly skidding by monstrously-shadowed trees and rickety, long-abandoned stills, heading God knows where, chased by God knows what, body wracked by mixed drinks, misery and meth.
Oh, crap; I've done it too, and poorly. It's just so addictive, isn't it? You can see how someone like Bill, a natural-born storyteller who hasn't had a day of college, got into something like this. Why he wakes up every day at 3 a.m. to pound out another few pages of his new novel. Why he finds the same pleasure in writing as he does in reading: the feel of being swept away by a story.
Crimes in Southern Indiana is as it sounds: a collection of homicides (mercy killings and cold-blooded murders, matricides and parricides; by pistol, shotgun, knife, drowning and neglect), rapes, dismemberments, drug deals gone bad (usually involving methamphetamine), dog fights, war crimes and garden-variety inequity. It's written in a hard-boiled style with descriptions drawn from blue-collar rural life: a rape (and incest) victim has a "goat-milk complexion" and "unwashed shoulder-length hair the hue of burned tires"; the man she murders collapses on her "like warm molasses"; "corn leaves like miniature razors" cut her face as she runs from the scene of the crime.
His characters are downtrodden but determined, possessed by a perverse survival instinct. An Afghan war veteran – who snapped after witnessing wartime raping and pillaging and spent two years attacking his fellow soldiers – just keeps on running once he gets stateside, driven by bloodlust, outrunning the cops and the cops' dogs. Most of the pieces start with a bang, with the feel of flash fiction, even when Bill fills a story out by crafting connective material to bridge between the flashes. Here's how the story about that Afghan vet, "The Need," starts out:
"Speeding into the gravel curve, Wayne lost control of the Ford Courier, stomped the gas instead of the brake. Gunned the engine and met the wilderness of elms head-on. His head split the windshield, creating warm beads down his forehead ..."
I'm not entirely sure what it is about Bill's media photos, but they make him look far more imposing — or at least rugged — than he does in real life. Maybe it's the Carhartt jacket he's wearing in the photos, or the low angle shots that don't prompt you to consider his height. But to look at him, Bill, 37, is rather a short guy, un-prepossessing, soft-spoken with a far-Southern Indiana accent. He's more than passionate about the writers who have inspired him — Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club got him started — but he talks with a cadence and patois that's not at all informed by, say, the academy. He's self-taught and proud of it, but he's not putting on airs.
I meet with Bill on the afternoon of a book launch party in his hometown. The old capitol building still stands in Corydon, which is about 120 miles south of Indianapolis. But just off the highway, in the low-slung neighborhood where Bill lives with his wife, Jennifer, the town looks like any other in the region: strip malls and trailer homes, well-maintained two-bedroom houses and farms. Bill lives in a small white house on a former apple orchard, a major highway within sight and earshot. He bought it from his parents; his nephew lives next door, and that's his eyesore of a broken-down truck occupying space between two yards.
I'm the second guy to trudge out to interview him, following on the heels of a Louisville reporter. He's still happy to meet with interlopers like myself at his house (or at the Wendy's just off the highway, but I opted for the house as the setting). He's also fielding phone interviews these days, including one from a Bloomington writer freelancing for Interview.
Bill's hometown newspaper has also written about him, though they've taken some shortcuts, crafting a profile from an interview conducted by Bill's PR guy and distributed with his media materials. Not that that would have been a big deal, but Bill says he was quoted out of context saying things about Corydon's police department ("corrupt") and lawyers (the same). It's not characteristic of his hometown's reaction to his work; either people don't know about him, or they're supportive, particularly since three short stories from Crimes in Southern Indiana were published by Playboy.
Writing from real life
No more than a few minutes into our interview, conducted on his back porch with a friendly tailless cat wending its way between everyone's legs, we're already talking about one of the more emotionally charged stories in his book, a tale of spousal and child abuse called "The Old Mechanic." It starts off with two sisters listening to the beating of their mother by their father (the Old Mechanic) while watching cartoon violence. They score a small victory by spitting into a bowl of cinnamon candies from which Dad grabs a handful after he's through. Here's an excerpt: "Their spit went unnoticed, and he'd return to the bedroom while they sat defenseless. Internally they laughed at the Mechanic's ingesting, his savoring and swallowing of their spit. But externally, nothing could drown out or stop the soundtrack of their mother's abuse, which sometimes kept them up until sunrise."
The piece goes on to concern itself with a meeting between the abusive father and one of his grandsons. His identity had been concealed from the grandson, Frank, until he was a teenager, but his mother accedes to a request for the two — grandson and grandfather — to meet. Frank neurotically (or realistically?) fears for the worst before his grandfather picks him up for an outing to a gun and knife show: "Frank imagines the Old Mechanic taking him to some compound guarded by brick walls, razor wire, and booby traps. Inside he'll chain Frank to a wall in his bomb-shelter basement next to his punching bag that's stuffed with the men and women he has disposed of ..."
Not surprisingly — given the name of the grandson, the accumulation of detail and the narrator's sympathy for both Frank and The Old Mechanic — the story is largely autobiographical.
"When my grandmother was first married, she had my mother and, of course, her sister, and for six years, she said he basically beat my grandmother to death every day," Bill tells me. "And I asked, 'Why didn't she try to leave him or get away,' and she said, 'At the time' — and this was back in the '40s and '50s — it just wasn't like that; you were married, and you stayed with your husband. You didn't have social services and things like that."
And like the character in "The Old Mechanic," Bill was kept away from his grandfather through his youth, until an outing when Bill was a teen that provided the raw material for the story.
"It was actually me and my cousin Denny who had been asked to go to the gun and knife show. He took us out to eat at a Ponderosa steakhouse. You know how they used to have the all-you-can-eat steak and shrimp. He complained the whole damn time we were there. He was very observant and knowledgeable about weapons and knives, but at the same time, he was one of the guys who, when he's talking, he doesn't want to be interrupted by somebody else."