When it comes to art—and especially literature—it takes a lot to make me squirm.
What about the torture scenes in American Psycho ?
What about that anal-prolapse story by Chuck Palahniuk? The one that made all those people faint?
Hell yeah, man. I'll discuss it over dinner. Pass the stroganoff.
Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian— a book whose violence is so overt and numbing that it can only be described as biblical—is in my top three.
Yet, Frank Bill's novel Donnybrook made me cringe. Many times.
The plot follows Chainsaw Angus and Liz, brother-and-sister meth-heads, both with horrifying potentials for violence. When Liz double-crosses Angus and takes their drugs to sell at Donnybrook—a backwoods free-for-all fighting tournament—it becomes a pursuit that leaves many bodies and busted cartilage in its wake. There's also the "protagonist," Jarhead Earl, who sees Donnybrook's cash prize as a way to escape his own lowly, drug-affected life. Throw in a sociopathic martial artist with a penchant for needle torture, a revenge-seeking cop and a feral woods-dweller and you get an idea of what may be the bloodiest literary culminations in recent memory.
I tell Bill that his book affected me so much that I felt I needed to angle it away from my wife like a steamy piece of erotica, completely in shock at what was on the page.
"Sure," he says, as if he's heard the compliment many times before. "If you're going to write about real criminals or real crime, people die. It's not pretty."
On the phone, Bill's voice is calm, almost quiet—a little strange for the person responsible for the propulsive carnage of Donnybrook, but not unexpected. He doesn't mince words, and it's a quality he's mastered in his writing: Clipped sentences give his story a strong cinematic feel. In fact, as a product of the age of the VCR, Bill spent his childhood watching violent action and kung-fu movies. He cites viewing Fight Club as a watershed moment that motivated him to read the original Chuck Palahniuk book, thereby igniting his interest in literature.
But it's his urgent sense of place and history that elevate Donnybrook above the standard provocative pulp. His characters speak in the southern Indiana dialect in which he was raised (he was born and currently resides in Corydon, Ind.), sometimes so thick that it feels like reading a phonetic style similar to Irvine Welsh's Scottish-heavy Trainspotting . The book's topics of violence and meth use also provide an unflinching, often unsettling portrait of rural Indiana.
"Some things that people see as violent, I don't see as so violent," he says. "I grew up around hunting and fishing and skinning and gutting animals. And my dad being a war vet, and my mom having an abusive childhood—they were just stories you were told. It was just part of the conversation about learning from each other: a person's history and where they come from."
Bill's own history provides a structural backdrop to the events in Donnybrook . He worked at a paint-additives plant for 14 years, but when the economy "went to shit" four years ago, he was bumped from working in the plant to the warehouse. It was about that time that he began writing Donnybrook . He noticed how the economic downturn affected other aspects of his life, including increasing violence on the news and the desperate actions his neighbors were taking just to get by. The lengths people go to for money and how the human condition is affected by the prospect of a better life are central themes in Donnybrook. One example of this is a part in the story where characters siphon gasoline out of parked cars.
"I asked my cop buddy—because that's when gas prices were going up and people were losing their jobs: I was, like, 'Is anybody siphoning gas from people's cars that are parked?' A couple weeks later, he gave me a call and was, like, 'Hey man, this stuff is happening all over the damn place.'"
When asked about his relationship with meth and its prevalence in the book—including the physical effects and tolls, as well as a detailed cooking sequence—he concedes that he "ran around with some guys in school that had done it. They actually got it in the mail.
"This was in the early '90s," he says. "This was before people were cooking it. What people were getting was actually legit."
But for Donnybrook 's backwoods-style meth manufacturing, Bill sought the advice of an ex-cook.
"I actually got in contact with some people, and they put me in contact with a guy who was a recovering meth-head and cook," he says. "I interviewed him, and we got to talking back and forth. He learned I wasn't full of shit. So he gave me a recipe and talked about where he was from, the different hollars where they cooked. Every hollar had a different recipe." (Hollar: an old Southern term meaning "down the road a spell" or, more accurately, "down in the valley a ways.")
Bill will make his first visit to San Diego for a Tuesday, April 23, event at The South Park Abbey (1946 Fern St.). Seth Marko, who runs the literary-criticism site The Book Catapult along with Scott Ehrig-Burgess, struck up a friendship with Bill when they reviewed his first story collection, Crimes in Southern Indiana . When Marko learned of Bill's appearance at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, he lured him south with a reading that fits the no-holds-barred nature of Donnybrook . World-champion arm wrestler Allen Fisher and his posse of "pullers" will perform for the crowd after the literary portion. The event starts at 7:30 p.m.
"We're trying to expand the borders of literary culture here in San Diego, moving The Book Catapult into the real world by hosting non-traditional events in unusual venues," Marko says via email.
"I think this can be the new model for literary culture: bringing the author right to your neighborhood so you can interact with them on a casual, friendly level in your local watering hole."