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Review by Clayton Smith
Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill
Reading Frank Bill’s collection of stories is like taking a shotgun blast to the face and living to write a review about it. It’s brutal, explosive, terse, and as raw as an open sore. You’ll cringe, you’ll gasp, you’ll laugh, you’ll cringe, and you’ll vow never, never, to step foot in southern Indiana.
Given the content, the most appropriate way to sum up my feelings is this: I f***in’ loved this book.
But that comes with a bit of a disclaimer. I’m a huge fan of Midwestern Gothic writing, and I know it’s not for everybody. If the names Cormac McCarthy, Daniel Woodrell, and Donald Ray Pollock mean anything to you, then you know what to expect here.
And what to expect is a bare-knuckle punch to the mouth.
Crimes in Southern Indiana is a collection of loosely related short stories that take place in the wooded Indiana south, where hill clans still mete out their own justice and amphetamine-fueled rages are just another nuisance. Bill’s setting is a more hellish version of the Deliverance woods. The characters are addicts, cheats, thieves, and killers, with few, if any, redeeming qualities. You never get comfortable with any of them, not even the ones who are basically good. They all have their rusted-steel edges, and you’re constantly uneasy around them.
Which is fine, because most don’t last too long.
The stories are crammed with spit, rust, blood, and mud. There are drug deals gone wrong. Drug-addled vengeance. Weary incest. Forced inheritances. Brutal murders committed out of spite. Insurance fraud gone wrong, and the reckoning that follows.
Crimes is quite the ride.
Midwestern Gothic is a writing style that’s always appealed to me. As someone who hails from the meth capital of the world and grew up 20 minutes away from the nearest Klan headquarters, Midwestern Gothic hits home for me in a special kind of way. As a teenager, meth addiction, violent racism, and backwoods justice existed somewhere on my periphery. I was never exposed to high levels of it directly, but it floated just outside of my world, and small wisps of it blew in and out of my formative years. It was always readily available to anyone who wanted to find it.
And plenty of people I grew up with did.
Midwestern Gothic stories give me a chance to experience that world that was always so close to me without having to get my hands dirty or my teeth rotted out. So that’s appealing to me.
It may not be as appealing to you. I can’t say. I hardly know you.
The one disappointment with the book (assuming you’re not disappointed by senseless violence) is that it reads as if Bill tacked on a few unpolished tales in the back of the book. The writing in the last handful of stories loses the spit-shine luster, and the dialogue feels forced. I got the sense that either they were some of Bill’s original short stories, written before he got ahold of his voice and choked it into submission, or else he was pushed to rattle off a few more yarns in a hurried attempt to flesh out the collection a little more. In that regard, the book ends on a bit of a backslide.
So! Do I recommend it? That’s a tough one. If you’re my mom, then no. Absolutely not. If you love Quentin Tarantino and have always wondered what he’d write if he’d grown up in the Ozarks and sat down at a typewriter while exploding on speed? Then yes, definitely. Read this book as soon as you can.