(I expect that I will post this on my own blog as well. I use the formal “Mr.” convention here for reasons I hope are obvious.)
A few weeks ago I noticed a flutter in the twittersphere concerning a just-released book, Frank Bill’s Crimes in Southern Indiana.
(Mr. Bill maintains an active blog at Frank Bill’s House of Grit.)
Preveiwers were generally excited about the book, and reviewers have also been kind. Here’s part of the publisher’s blurb:
Welcome to heartland America circa right about now, when the union jobs and family farms that kept the white on the picket fences have given way to meth labs, backwoods gunrunners, and bare-knuckle brawling.
Bill’s people are pressed to the brink–and beyond. There is Scoot McCutchen, whose beloved wife falls terminally ill, leaving him with nothing to live for–which doesn’t quite explain why he brutally murders her and her doctor and flees, or why, after years of running, he decides to turn himself in. In the title story, a man who has devolved from breeding hounds for hunting to training them for dog-fighting crosses paths with a Salvadoran gangbanger tasked with taking over the rural drug trade, but who mostly wants to grow old in peace. As Crimes in Sourthern Indiana unfolds, we witness the unspeakable, yet are compelled to find sympathy for the depraved.
Honestly, how could I not read this book? I already see the hilly forested hills of my native land as a heart of darkness. Here is someone looking to write that myth in the form of pop fiction. I tweeted about it, think I mentioned it on Facebook, thought I had mentioned it here. That last, I never did. I am remedying that right now.
Bill Zink, a faithful correspondent and sharp critical mind, followed up on my lead and read the book and posted about reading it on his blog, The Death of Everything. He took as his starting place Mr. Bill’s use of music in the book, and noted that the specific artists cited – Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” in one scene and Dock Boggs’ “O Death” in another – took him out of the narrative because it was improbable that these specific pieces of music would have been easily available as broadcast or ambient sound in the time and place of the narrative.
The Cash is cited in a tavern just before a fight breaks out and here I’ll disagree with Mr. Zink: that cut has been on jukeboxes since it was released, and Mr. Bill places his stories in time dispersed from the postwar ear to what appears to be the present day. The other citation, “O, Death,” I recall as described as coming from a radio as well, and here I concur with Mr. Zink in his critique of the song as unrealistic.
There’s one other reference to music in the book. A supporting character is described as wearing a worn Drive-By Truckers tee shirt. Here again, that is a reference beyond the probable horizon of the character in question.
I’m pretty sure these three referents are intended both as scene-setting for the audience and as signposts to some of Mr. Bill’s influences. Additionally, the use of period-and-setting inappropriate music in the context of a film is a useful and effective technique to add atmosphere and expand the referents of a scene. The bar fight in Kathryn Bigelow’s wonderful Near Dark, for instance, is set to the Cramps’ “Fever.” The viewer imputes the tune as coming from the jukebox, and in 1987 backwoods bars definitely did NOT have cuts by the Cramps on the jukebox.
I don’t feel like I need to expand on why someone with an interest in writing backwoods noir would be interested in the work of Johnny Cash or the Drive-By Truckers, and I probably don’t need to explore the use of Dock Boggs either, but that last one is a thread worth expanding anyway. I would also venture that the films “The Dancing Outlaw” and “The Wild and Wonderful Whites” are also influences.
The book is a collection of short stories set mostly in far Southern Indiana, along the northern bank of the Ohio. The stories overlap in characters and setting and occasionally in narrative events. Without a detailed knowledge of the original publication order of the stories, my own sense is that the book presents them in roughly the order of creation. The very first story cycle concerns a blood feud between two hillbilly outlaw families and the prose is florid. My impression was that the language in these three stories reflected a young writer and could have benefitted from more-rigorous editing. In particular some repetitions in the prose did not appear to me to serve a clear aesthetic purpose, although I can see where repetition in prose concerning meth users could serve a useful purpose.
After that set of tales, the author’s use of language generally tightens up, and an outline of a project begins to glimmer though the blood and the bodies. It seems like Mr. Bill is looking at the body of American Appalachian folklore, very definitely including the amazing American murder ballad tradition, as a sort of foundation for the stories he’s creating.
One of these tales features the murder of a spurned lover literally in the waters of a river, which is of course one of the great wellsprings of these murder ballads.
The initial trilogy of tales concerning feuding hill clans is an old trope in American fiction and beyond, of course. It looks to me as if he pulled back from writing about the mythical hillbilly other to write about experiences that are closer to a livable, reportable experience – a good two-thirds of the stories in the book, I estimate, include viewpoints alongside law enforcement personnel.
Toward the end of the book, he reintroduces some of the characters from the clans at the start of the book and looks to be working his way back to them.
There is a split in the prose throughout the book. When Mr. Bill is writing about the ‘other,’ which I hasten to add may not actually be his perception of the hillbilly crankers, his use of words gets, I dunno, overenthusiastic. Confused somehow. Metaphors compressed down to literal actions, reactive verbs transformed into active verbs. When he writes about the more prosaic actions of an officer of the law, clarity comes into the writing. Thinking about this, I wondered if that reflected reportage versus imagination or memory, and I think that’s a reasonable thesis.
On his blog, he’s recently posted links to a spot of autobiography, in We Brought Tomorrow Until Today Was Gone, and to the Granta-published online-only The Heartland: Ten Years After 9/11, which is reportage. In the autobio, there are recongnizable antecedents to characters seen in Crimes in Southern Indiana.
One last note: MFT member and Southern Indiana songwriter John Terrill, Bloomington author Bill Weaver, and New Orleans based DJ and guitarist Matt Uhlmann are all from Lawrenceburg, Indiana, which is on the northern bank of the Ohio. All three have close ties to the music scenes that spawned MFT. I was curious if Mr. Bill’s settings or life experiences might have crossed ways with these guys, but apart from Mr. Bill’s mother being named Sue Weaver, it seems unlikely.
Mr. Terrill may share a sensibility with Mr. Bill, though, as evidenced by this Rosebloods track, Whiskey River. I couldn’t figure out how to embed the song here for one-click play, my apologies.