Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Hell of Their Own Design

The people populating the small towns and backwoods of southern Indiana meet with grisly ends throughout Frank Bill’s short stories. Simple shootings just won’t do for these twisted, nasty characters. A blade slices through both of a man’s eyes, a man lassos and hangs his father-in-law at his wife’s behest, silent dogs bite their way from a bulging calf to a vulnerable throat, and then, there are the flames: a barn of dead dogs set afire, homemade bombs exploding and burning the attacker instead of the target, a lit cigarette flicked into a circle of gasoline. Crimes in Southern Indiana: Stories overflows with senseless violence alongside righteous, brutal vengeance.

Men, women and children wind in and out of these stories linked and rooted by place. Families take shape from one story to the next, an often gruesome shape, melding into the fabric of the action or serving as a backdrop, a connection, or an explanation of the deep mysteries of human motivation. The tone is pessimistic and sardonic. “The only time life is easy is childhood, but by the time a person realizes this, it’s too damn late.”

Bill paints his law enforcement with the same dark pigment used for his criminals. Even the good guys exhibit flaws, bad behavior, and judgment tainted by personal interest or annihilated by tragedy. Ordinary people fall victim to their vices. Innocence is shattered for no conceivable reason. Children commit violence, are raped and killed. Lives ruined in an instant. Everyone is fair game. It is the rare man who emerges on the other side and no one gets away clean.

The transgressions accumulate like crappie on a fish stringer, so fast that you lose count. In Trespassing Between Heaven and Hell, the breach lays not so heavily in the act as in the cover-up, but once events are set into motion, sin piles upon convenient sin, complicated by the relationship of brothers and the wrecked psyche of a man incapable of leaving war wounds behind him. Already broken people shatter beyond repair.

The aftermath of war figures into The Old Mechanic as well. Perhaps the most compelling story in the collection, the narrative is told from the point of view of an adolescent boy meeting his grandfather for the first time. The boy grew up hearing savage accounts of the man’s behavior. Despite his mother’s misgivings and his own searing fear, the boy goes off alone with the man. The simple words than run through the boy’s head while he accompanies his grandfather to a gun show, to dinner and finally to the old man’s home, elucidate a mixture of repulsion and curiosity, clearly illuminating the irresistible pull of blood and history. In the end, pervasive guilt wracks the grandfather’s existence with hope of only the merest hint of redemption.

The Penance of Scoot McCutcheon is a love story. It's the accounting of an ordinary home and a happy marriage, told by a doting husband. A young wife described in tender, intimate detail. But it is a love story of the dead and the dying, told in retrospect and tinged with regret. It is the least violent tale here, the crime secondary to an emotionally devastating centerpiece. Haunted by his own actions, a man in perpetual disguise runs from himself for years before surrendering to reckon for his sin, making peace with his own conscience but unable to shake his staggering guilt.

This story collection is an astonishing debut. Bill peppers his writing with generous description, some perfectly rendered, some slightly distracting. Hair and eyes “stained like a walnut”, “flesh giftwrapping bone”, or “Frail would describe her as muscular,” evoke just the right image. Even the few less successful passages bring a definite vision into the mind. Inducing and conveying raw emotion seems almost effortless for Bill, particularly in the case of men in love with their women. The stories race along, visceral, strong, and stunning, transporting the reader into a dirty, dangerous world of drugs, alcohol, incessant violence, and the terminal pastimes of decaying rural life. These people of southern Indiana inhabit an unrelenting hell made up partially of circumstance but primarily crafted from their own design.