'Crimes in Southern Indiana': Chewing on ugly
"Crimes in Southern Indiana: Stories" by Frank Bill is an in-your-face violent story collection featuring an Indiana far afield from Hoosiers, hoops and covered bridges.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Crimes in Southern Indiana: Stories'
by Frank Bill
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 288 pp., $15
When the first character you meet is named Pitchfork, and when the first thing Pitchfork does is press the barrel of a .45 to his nephew's forehead and a sawed-off shotgun to his son's forehead, and when this opening comes off as tame compared to all that follows, you know you're not in the nostalgic Indiana of new-mown hay and moonlight on the Wabash.
You're in Frank Bill's Indiana, Southern Indiana, which in Bill's ever violent and never dull stories becomes a blend of Midwest Gothic and country pulp. In Bill's Indiana, you'll find no basketball hoops on the sides of barns, no covered bridges, no mention of the word Hoosier. In this Indiana, everyone gets and gives their share of awful. There are cornfields, but bad things happen in them.
Bill's first book, a collection of 17 supercharged stories that sometimes but not always interweave, won't induce anyone visiting Southern Indiana to wander off from the usual attractions — Brown County, lovely in the fall, and the Indiana University campus, a charmer in limestone.
These stories take place farther south, along the Ohio River, across from Kentucky. Men with names like Scoot and Moon and Cross-Eyed Chucky drive rusted Chevies, raise Bluetick hounds, drink Falls City beer and smoke Pall Malls fired with Ohio Blue Tip matches. But the soundtrack isn't banjo; the soundtrack is gunfire and the screams of people being stabbed or cleaved, as violence erupts due to differences among or within clans, or to the scourge of meth, or to what's been carried home by veterans of war.
"All that ugly in the air," Bill writes in one story, "The Old Mechanic," and it's a line that could be plugged into just about all of the book's stories.
Bill's stories are over the top, but in a good way, in the way that Quentin Tarantino's first film, "Reservoir Dogs," was over the top. Bill never cheats on the smells and sounds of carnage. He doesn't spare the kids and the dogs. But he mixes in a dash of dark humor ("The Accident" being the best example), an occasional nod to love and sentiment ("The Penance of Scoot McCutchen"), and he's adept at holding back, offering reward with a fine twist at story's end.
Readers with low tolerance for pulp and its attendant verbs might want to look elsewhere. (Everything, it seems, is chewed or chewing. The light chews. An explosion chews. The pavement has been chewed.) But for people drawn to stories on the dark side — and perhaps wanting a new setting for "all that ugly" — this book delivers.
Ken Armstrong: firstname.lastname@example.org. A Seattle Times reporter, he is the co-author of "Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity," winner of the 2011 Edgar Award for best fact crime book.