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.
Still, plenty has changed, for economic but also other reasons. After World War II, interstate highways opened, and new bypasses rerouted life away from cloistered downtowns. Later, manufacturing began to dry up, and local farms became attached to corporate monoliths. Kids who went to college never came back; those who stayed watched their self-reliant communities turn into commuter towns or unemployment zones. I’ve always felt these shifts brought some good with the bad. It’s sad to see boarded-up movie theaters in Sunman-size locales, but a multiplex offers ten times the choice, even if it’s an hour-long drive to the city.
Either way, these shifts have caused some of the region’s traditions to curdle. According to FBI statistics, the Midwest is the only region where murder rates are still increasing; proportionately, across the country, communities with fewer than 10,000 residents have seen the biggest increase of all. This goes a long way toward explaining the death, brawls, and abuse that saturate Frank Bill’s books.
Donnybrook’s antiheroes, Chainsaw Angus and his sister Liz, make their living off meth. They’re not exactly Walter White, the chemistry whiz who cooks in a “superlab” on Breaking Bad: They squat in rotting farmhouses, blacking out the windows with garbage bags and working on hot plates and camping stoves. Like White, though, they have turned to drugs as a second career. Angus had inherited his father’s logging operation, but a downturn in construction (and a nasty chainsaw injury) put him out of business. Angus does better as a meth cook, until Liz betrays him, stealing a rucksack stuffed with product and heading to the Donnybrook to sell it. Angus chases after her. So do an aging deputy sheriff, a Chinese debt collector, and a semi-noble boxer from Kentucky, bumping into and bloodying each other along the way.
Bill writes in a simple, direct style. Short chapters split into short sections. Short sentences, too, with just-right regional touches. A bar deploys empty spools of electrical wire as tables; the Kentucky boxer gets around in a “primered Ford Galaxy”; the wife of a gun shop owner spends her days eating “fried chicken livers breaded with her mother’s secret recipe and watch[ing] the Home Shopping Network on satellite.” Liz and Angus sell their meth during shift changes at the local parts factory, which makes sense. Rural areas rarely enjoy full-blown auto factories, settling instead for supply-chain plants that churn out components like glove boxes or headlights.
Still, with Bill it always comes back to violence. His gift for inventive depravity—the debt collector uses fishing hooks in an acupuncture torture session—is undeniable. Even the minor bits of action get tender loving care. This might sound very Hollywood but the gore feels more like a video game. Bill doesn’t linger on the gunman grabbing his weapon or taking aim. He traces the bullet dismembering the body—the moment when, in a game, the pixels rip, explode, or mist. “Angus raised the .45 to Flat’s ash-smudged face,” reads a typical passage. “Pulled the trigger. Red parted white. Flat lost his shape, fell to the earth.”
Donnybrook has not so much a plot as loose scenes of capering after the meth. At one point, the deputy sheriff discovers a husband and wife cooking inside their fumy trailer. The woman wears a rayon nightgown, the man a filthy too-small T-shirt. Three children are there, too, sitting on “a red vinyl front seat pulled from a ’77 Monte Carlo.” This isn’t even a key location—no other characters pass through—but that just makes it feel more representative of Donnybrook’s world. This is a bleak, bleak book.
It’s significant that both Bill and the senior statesman of the genre, Donald Ray Pollock of Ohio, have more than distant memories of a hometown childhood to draw on. Both men have spent most of their lives in the places they write about—including decades working there like anyone else. Each grew up in the southern part of his state, where the “Midwest” owes as much to the South as it does to, say, the Great Lakes, and both have kept notebooks on the job in a factory where they scribbled down co-workers’ harrowing stories.
Bill’s roots in Indiana—and in the historic town of Corydon—run deep: a grandfather who worked 100 acres of farmland; a father who returned from Vietnam to log nights at the local VFW; and Bill, who grew up a mild hell-raiser, then settled down to a job at a paint-additive factory. He didn’t try fiction until he was nearly 30, when he saw Fight Club, the 1999 film in which Brad Pitt’s character organizes a series of brutal underground fights. Bill loved the movie so much he sought out the book, and Chuck Palahniuk’s novel converted him into a reader who relied on the Internet’s algorithmic suggestions for what to devour next. I can’t decide whether to admire Bill’s drive or to despair at a literary culture that doesn’t do more to reach people like him.
The same arc applies roughly to Pollock’s life, except that while Bill started waking up to write at 3:30 A.M., Pollock started writing in the afternoons, after his shift at a paper mill. At 45, Pollock had stumbled through a midlife crisis and decided to try fiction. Nine years later, his collection of stories, named Knockemstiff after the town he grew up in, caught the fancy of NPR and The New York Times. “Knockemstiff had a reputation for being a really rough place,” Pollock told the Times in 2008. “I took that and cranked it up a few amps.” As a writer’s manifesto, that’s pretty elliptical. Still, I think Pollock and Bill share the goal of telling a less romantic story about their region. It’s no accident that Pollock sets his novel, The Devil All the Time, in the 1950s—because, he implies, there was never a golden Midwestern era.
In a book like Fight Club, people beat each other up so that Chuck Palahniuk can talk masculinity and consumerism. In Pollock’s and Bill’s work, they beat each other up because it happens like that sometimes. We associate the term “naturalism” with century-old authors like Stephen Crane, who began with a simple question. What happens when human beings are turned loose in an overwhelming new environment like the modern city? The answer tended to be grim. “Environment is a tremendous thing in the world,” Crane used to inscribe in copies of his novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, “and frequently shapes lives regardless.”
Given the terse style of these Midwestern writers, I suspect they’d chop modifiers like “frequently” and “regardless.” Still, their purpose remains the same. What happens when human beings are turned loose in an environment that’s not new so much as eroded? Late in Donnybrook, Angus explains, “That ruck belongs to me. No one else. I cooked it. I earned it. It’s mine.” Pollock and Bill make sure plenty of their characters echo this view. You earn (or, in what amounts to the same thing, take) whatever you can. What happens, in a few cases at least, is a man like Chainsaw Angus.
Donnybrook is less polished and less satisfying than Crimes in Southern Indiana. Bill seems to care more about saying something cold-blooded or Raymond Carver–cool than about providing clear descriptions. There are lazy repetitions (calling Liz’s décolletage “sugar-cookie-pale”—then, one paragraph later, noting her “powdered-donut-colored flesh”). While Crimes in Southern Indiana features several female characters, in Donnybrook the women get only minor roles, except for Liz, whose defining trait is looking good in a concert T-shirt.
But a larger shortcoming exists in both of Bill’s books and in the fiction of Pollock and these other working-class authors. There’s a strange absence of interiority or motive in these works. Reading them, one rarely knows why anyone does anything.
While Pollock, the best stylist in this group, gets justly praised for his chops, the back-cover blurbs for many of these books often strain for some metaphor about how you’d best read wearing a pair of brass knuckles. Pollock himself resorts to the hard sell. Here’s a blurb he wrote for Bill: “Hits as hard as an ax handle to the side of the head after you’ve eaten a live rattlesnake for breakfast.”
But what if these novels offered more? What if, in addition to jobs and trailers, they showed us what it’s like to live there? What it’s like not to be able to leave?
Maybe the lack of psychology reveals an unconscious prejudice—a belief that deep characters and complicated thoughts exist everywhere but here. I’ve found myself thinking about the people you rarely encounter in Pollock’s and Bill’s books: schoolteachers, store clerks, or anyone remotely like an elderly woman I know in Sunman. A friend of my family’s, this woman has lived a sad and wonderful life—married at 14, a grandmother in her thirties, she watched her husband flip a four-wheeler in their yard and end up paralyzed. I remember when the church we both went to moved Wednesday-night services to her house, so her husband could still attend, and I remember how I never saw her complain.
One of my favorite things about the rural Midwest—and also one of my least favorite—is how, thanks to the way families stay in one place, even as their luck shifts or fades, you end up with people and their histories all mixed together—stuck together, over time. That old lady in Sunman could easily have been the brutal Stanley Short’s neighbor. In Pollock’s and Bill’s world of grotesques, she and her resilience, worry, and hope are nowhere to be found.