In lesser hands, a gritty novel like Frank Bill’s, Donnybrook, would be an impossible read for me. I’ve tried reading books that vie for a similar effect and have stopped long before reaching the end. In lesser hands, a novel like Donnybrook would be no more than a collection of backwoods superheroes spilling blood until the cartoonish nature of the story bored me to snoring. In lesser hands, page after page of blood and cuts and bruises and bullets and death and booze and drugs and snakebites and dog bites would bore me no end.
So what’s so different about Frank Bill’s Donnybrook?
First off, it is brilliant writing. It is writing that leaves me envious of what appears to come so naturally to authors like Lynn Kostoff, Ben Whitmer, Michael Harris, Cormac McCarthy, and some very few others.
There’s nothing cartoonish about Frank Bill’s slice of Americana, Indiana style. This gut-checking, blood prose is reminiscent of David Milch’s Deadwood series—artistic down to its nitty-gritty, skin- tearing, bone-busting core. Milch’s Deadwood was American Shakespeare. Frank’s Donnybrook is McCarthy on Meth.
A few years ago, author Russel McLean http://theseayemeanstreets.blogspot.com/ sent me a copy of a book about the hard men of Glasgow, No Mean City (reviewed here at TK back in 2010). A 1935 novel about the mean streets of the Glasgow ghettos, No Mean City, could double for an earlier version of Donnybrook, the Scotland version.
Turning badass characters into sympathetic ones is no easy feat. Sustaining them as such is damn near impossible. Donnybrook features some of the hardest men you’ll ever come across in literature. Think Cormac McCarthy’s, Chigurh, except in Frank Bill’s world, Chigurh would have to be as good with his hands as he was coldhearted with his cattle gun weapon of choice.
Rather than offer a book report, here are some of my favorite passages:
The man’s flesh was charcoaled jelly. Flat dragged him from the house screaming, dropped him into the yard where he now lay with his arms spread like a deity next to a rusted tricycle. Swing set with no slide, no swings. Memories long abandoned. Smoke erupted from the flames behind them. Yellow and orange opened the night and devoured the old house.
And this one: They crashed in the cold, air-conditioned interior of Ned’s tin shack. Cardboard blinds blocked light from the southern Indiana heat outside. Condensate beaded on the glass. Their chalky outlines lay intertwined like albino anacondas nesting.
I could go on and copy most of the book … this on page 92 had me reading and re-reading for the natural flow of this adrenaline filled novel. A girl who appeared no older than a freshman in high school sat on his cot. Hands behind a head of hair the shade of pond mud, thick-bristled and shoulder-length. Her complexion was steam white. She had metallic hazel eyes outlined by Mötley Crüe mascara. She was Twizzler-lipped. Two braless mounds lumped beneath a V-neck Hanes cut low …
You can feel, see and smell the world the author describes in settings like this: “Logs had started to moss over. Matched the tin roof’s shade, hunter green. The Blue River ran just as green on the other side of the road. That hint of fish smell wafted into Whalen’s inhale. The yard was littered with beer cans and pine needles. A small brown fridge sat on the wooden deck up next to the cabin’s front door.”
It isn’t a coincidence that I found two of the same paragraphs I highlighted in my copy of Donnybrook in another review of the book by author, Richard Thomas (an excellent review, by the way). This one is perhaps my favorite: “They circled and bumped on another like predators. Men with talcum teeth, skin cleaved by scars. Hair braided, slicked, or stringy. Short or shaved. Bearded or stubbled. Tall. Short. Lean, hard, or fat-bellied. They came in all demeanors. Donning bibs or jeans ragged as the boots laced around their feet. These were the backwoods bare-knuckle fighters.”
I highlighted many more passages, but to repost them here would be to retype the book, when you can just order the thing (or better, go buy it from a local bookstore), and read it for yourselves, which is VERY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
For me, it was never about the story of Jarhead and Angus and Wheeler and Purcell or Fu (who seems to be triggering a sequel that only Purcell has foreseen). The storyline is simple enough: desperate people doing desperate things to survive. Donnybrook is a yearly convention of brawlers fighting for coin. Jarhead robs a friend’s store for the entry fee to the Donnybrook in an attempt to finance a future for his family. He intends to pay the stolen loot back. Angus took the risks of cooking Meth and was robbed, and he wants his product back. Wheeler’s a cop with a hidden past that brings him in search of the person responsible for the tragedy in his life. There’s also Fu and Liz and Ned and McGill, other characters that keep the adrenaline flowing, and they all meet up at the Donnybrook for the crescendo ending (that may be a beginning).
These are hard men and women doing what life in a Southern Indiana’s raw knuckled state of nature require to survive. And while all things Methamphetamine is a world foreign to me, I found myself intrigued all the same. Frank Bill is teaching me in his stories (Crimes in Southern Indiana) and now his brilliant debut novel, Donnybrook.
The bottom line is that Frank Bill is another one of those rare writers—a writer’s writer—the kind we can admire for the inherent and honest gravitas of his prose.
Here’s a review of Frank Bill’s wonderful short story collection, Crimes in Southern Indian, I did for The Crime of It All. Pay attention to Frank Bill, amici, he’s the real deal.
The Station Agent ... IMDb says: When his only friend dies, a man born with dwarfism moves to rural New Jersey to live a life of solitude, only to meet a chatty hot dog vendor and a woman dealing with her own personal loss. We say this is a wonderful movie. Funny, sad, poignant and ultimately uplifting ... with a cast as loaded as they come. Peter Dinklage (of Game of Thrones fame) as Finbar McBride, Bobby Cannavale (of Boardwalk Empire fame) as Joe Oramas, the wonderful Patricia Clarkson as Olivia Harris, the incredible Michelle Williams as Emily, Raven Goodwin as Cleo, Paul Benjamin as Henry Styles, Richard Kind as Louis Tiboni, Josh Pais as Carl, Joe Lo Truglio as Danny, John Slattery as David and Jayce Bartok as Chris.
Films like The Station Agent are why searching independent films on Netflix usually leads to good things ... a wonderful movie.
And for TK readers without Facebook updates ... here yous go ...
Nonno and Evelyn Amelia ...
Me: Smell the gravy Nonno cooked for you, honey?
Evie: Shh, Nonno, I’m trying to sleep.
Me: Next week I’ll take you to the opera.
Evie: Nonno, don’t be a pain in the ass. I’m tired.
Me: I’m getting a cramp in my arm holding you like this.
Evie: Well, you’re not in very good shape, are you?
Me: Diet starts tomorrow.
Evie: Nonno, don’t be a moron. I like your man tits. They're comfortable.
Momma Stella and Lent (on the phone) ...
Me: I’ll see you again Friday night.
MS: Don’t forget my candy.
Me: And the Lent fast is over two days short.
MS: No it’s not. At twelve o’clock Saturday it’s over. Once HE has risen.
MS: My mother and father did it that way.
Me: Then they were cheating, too.
MS: Go ask the church, you shithead.
Me: Maybe HE should bring you the candy.
MS: Goodbye. I’m hanging up now.
I love my Mommy!
You read Donnybrook, how do you not pick this one?
You didn’t really think I’d let yous escape without some opera, did yous? Hungry? How about some ear? Go to 4:50 or so in the video, if yous can’t wait ... it’s the scene from Cavalleria Rusticana that Francis Ford Coppola borrowed for Godfather III, although he borrowed often from this Sicilian Verismo opera throughout all three Godfather movies.