Magazine article The American Prospect

Country Noir: Frank Bill and the New Violent Midwestern Fiction

Magazine article The American Prospect

Country Noir: Frank Bill and the New Violent Midwestern Fiction

Article excerpt

CRIMES IN SOUTHERN INDIANA

BY FRANK BILL

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

DONNY BROOK

BY FRANK BILL

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME

BY DONALD RAY POLLOCK

Doubleday

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

One spring morning two years ago, a woman left her house--a small white one, its porch overrun by toys and exercise equipment--and dropped off her kids at the Sunman Elementary School. Sunman is a tiny town that spreads across the flat farmland of Southern Indiana. State Road 101 is the main drag, and the woman drove down it, past the IGA with its twin gas pumps, past the Family Dollar, past a bar named Louie's, until she reached home.

Stanley Short, her estranged husband, was waiting inside. When she entered, Short hit her on the head with a hammer, then bound her to a bed with zip ties and duct tape. He cut her shirt off with a carpet knife and raped her.

After several hours the woman came up with an excuse for why they needed to leave. If she didn't pay the electricity bill, the utility would shut off her power. With Short in the passenger seat, she headed back out on 101 until she spotted a group of men talking outside the Sunman Auction House. The woman swerved into the parking lot and then ran from the car screaming. Short dashed away too, into the nearby woods, but the state police tracked him down. A jury convicted Short of rape, battery, and criminal confinement, among other charges, and he is now serving a 60-year prison sentence.

If you live outside the listening range of WRBI, Sunman's local country station, you've probably never heard of Short. I grew up in Indiana, two towns over from Sunman; even then I only learned about the case after a friend filed several terrifying updates on Facebook. Still, the episode came back to me while I was reading Frank Bill's 2011 debut story collection, Crimes in Southern Indiana. Stanley Short--tattooed, goateed, cruel--would have fit right in with Bill's desperate characters.

There's a long tradition of shotguns-and-spare-prose fiction depicting America's working class, and right now the Midwest is having a literary moment. Dennis Lehane, who anchors his crime novels in Boston, once told an interviewer that "in Greek tragedy they fall from great heights. In noir they fall from the curb." In books by a small but growing number of authors--besides Bill, Donald Ray Pollock (Ohio), Bonnie Jo Campbell (Michigan), Alan Heathcock (Illinois)--there are no curbs. The roads are gravel and dirt, but the people still find a way to fall.

This makes for more than just good noir. Sometimes the rural Midwest, and rural America more generally, can seem to drown in don't-bother-locking-the-doors nostalgia. The frustrations of groups like the Tea Party suggest that, in many ways, this near mythology remains as powerful inside the region as out. Against this ideal, consider Bill's new novel, Donnybrook, whose title refers to a three-day bare-knuckle fighting tournament held every August on former farmland. Fans come to watch, gamble, inhale, imbibe--"like a Dead concert with fists," a mostly toothless meth head calls it. It's not so easy to be nostalgic about that.

FRANK BILL WRITES about a particular slice of the Midwest: not the midsize cities, the university towns, or even the places you can glimpse from the interstate but the isolated communities, where the water tower and feed mill remain the two tallest structures.

Some of the region's stronger communal traits still hold. I grew up in the same sprawling gray farmhouse my grandfather was born in, for instance--his mother gave birth to him in the front room, where we kept my sister's piano--and while that kind of rootedness has become rarer in other parts of the country, it's still pretty standard in Southern Indiana. …

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