By: The Same Page Team
For the past year or so, members of the Same Page staff (namely Chris, Paul, Ian, Daniel and Nick) have organized a monthly book club, the Finer Things Club. On a Sunday evening the guys get together to discuss a selected work, drink a bottle of wine, and bust each other’s chops. The club rotates through its members to allow everyone a turn at selecting a book. Previous selections included Zone One by Colson Whitehead, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
This month the book that was read and discussed was Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill. Nick made the pick.
In Crimes in Southern Indiana, Frank Bill paints a pretty bleak, almost hopeless picture of humanity. Through a collection of short stories, of which most characters are drunk, poor, drug addicted and eventually murdered, we see what a broken down, disconnected society looks like. The settings are devoid of beauty and the people are without morals. So this is America without the whole “star spangled, anyone can make it, shining city on a hill” aspect of it.
What I found interesting about most of the stories was the timelessness of them all. Other than a few loose details here and there, Bill does an excellent job of not giving too much away as to when these stories might be taking place. Most of the stories really could have taken place at any time. I found myself wondering if it took place in the past, present, or even some Godforsaken future.
Bill writes in a very descriptive manner. Vivid adjectives are peppered throughout the stories. You can almost taste the tobacco from the ashtray at the bar, or smell the stale beer in the crumpled up cans that litter the cabin floor. Bodies, bullet shells and smashed bottles of alcohol litter the Indiana countryside and Bill puts you right in the middle of it all.
The most pervasive quality, present in the majority of the characters, is desperation. You and I might never consider selling our 14-year-old granddaughter to a local gang, but it seemed perfectly logical at the time for Able in ‘These Old Bones’. Just the same, most ordinary couples probably wouldn’t murder their father to take over his land, Bellmont and Carol see it as just another way to solve a problem in ‘Cold, Hard Love’.
The stories are short, hard, and engrossing. The characters are hardened, hopeless and hostile. The setting is dirty, downtrodden and dreadful. Sorry I couldn’t help the alliteration there. If you’re like me and sick of hearing about an America where all the white picket fences are still up, everyone has two smiling, happy children and the local factories have yet to move to China (you know, the one that still exists in the minds of Republicans who refuse to acknowledge that large swaths of the US fail to produce anything of substance other than excellent backdrops for episodes of Cops)… then you may want to give this book a shot.
Not many books feature an opening page with men bursting into a house, shotgun blazing. Blazing is a fitting word to use. Actually, the adjective “relentless” comes to mind; as in, unceasing, unending, forever and ever, amen. That is the tone that Frank Bill works in as he wrests his shorts stories together into the satisfying, if grim, spectacle of Crimes in Southern Indiana. The book, a 272 page, 17 story collection, features the lives of unglamourous people doing ugly things to one another. There is a sense of raw justice found, but it never seems to be fair.
The stand out moments of the book are found in the tiniest asides, when Bill allows his language to flourish rather than be overwhelmed by the action. My favourite stories are the ones that askew the straight drug and vengeance related violence for something more elegiac: a tale of a man pushed by guilt to roam the country, or a paranoid who has lost his grip on reality due to a family accident. The images in these and other stories conjures up powerful visions of man and nature and a sort of stillness that is impossible to experience in the city (and after reading this book, I am OK with that). Really, it takes a special book to describe a battered nose as being ‘butterflied’, or dropped knees “punching” the floor. Bill makes no bones about capturing the hardscrabble existence of the rural people, a life he seemingly must know at some level.
Holy shit, I need to sit down. And if I was sitting down reading this, I needed to lie down with a cool cloth on my forehead. Crimes in Southern Indiana takes off like a rocket and does not relent on the intensity until the very last page. Frank Bill has sculpted a Southern Indiana where morally ambiguous sheriffs and lawmen clash with unemployed meth heads, drunks, pedophiles and murderers. It’s a bleak picture, to be sure, but one that opens up a wide array of discussion topics. Is this the logical conclusion of decades of outsourcing and a chasm of an income gap? In other words, is this where America is headed? Bill does an excellent job of creating a feel for the region, its geography and its people. Short story collections often use the landscape as a character, usually as the only character that can be followed from beginning to end. Bill weaves his characters in and out of various stories, and is able to expertly continue their story as if no time, or horrifically violent events, happened since we last saw them. A great read for those concerned with the current state of America, and for fans of noir fiction or crime fiction.
Reading Frank Bill’s Crimes in Southern Indiana is not always easy. Within the first paragraph you have already become witness to the relentless violence and illegal drug world portrayed in this series of short stories. Being a witness in this case feels a little like waking up to the smell of PBR after getting knocked out cold with a shovel at the hands of some guy who looks like Cam Neely’s character in Dumb and Dumber. Joking aside, Frank Bill brings pulp fiction to the American South and Mid-west with a concise and effective prose that speaks volumes about American life and culture. I thoroughly enjoyed the writing style (I would describe it as ‘refreshing’), as the prose was able to quickly and accurately portray an emotion or understanding. It is obvious to readers that Bill knows and understands this landscape well. He came from these places (maybe the only one to make it out alive), and has thought about the larger socioeconomic forces in both America and globally, that continue to influence parts of American culture today.
Not unlike some other novels already read by The Finer Things Club, the setting becomes a character, and in Crimes, this character binds all the stories together. This collection of short stories is not defined by a single character, but by the way of life depicted in Indiana and other parts of the American South. This way of life can be interpreted as either a reflection of a violent American culture crafted through American ideals of liberty and individualism, or as being at the ass-end of the American Dream and capitalist polarization. Either way, the parallels are strikingly (and violently) staged in this great read.