Betrayals and Backwoods: Frank Bill’s “Donnybrook” Reviewed


by Frank Bill
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 240 p.

A quote wrongly attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson and butchered by sad sacks goes something like this: “life is a journey; not a destination.” If such saccharine bromides are to be taken seriously, Frank Bill’s relentless Donnybrook would serve as a compelling case to stay the hell home. This follow-up to his disquieting 2011 collection Crimes In Southern Indiana returns to familiar themes and locales, betrayals and backwoods.

Named for a (hopefully) fictitious outlaw free-for-all with none of the charms or chuckles of the Cannonball Run, Donnybrook tells a story of American desperation and inhumanity as well as any high-minded grindhouse fare possibly could. Through interwoven and overlapping narratives, Bill introduces us to men and women incapable of civility in a country where hard labor and good pay never quite converge. They suffer no delusions of their lot and take extraordinary, albeit savage, steps to rectify this.

Violence soaks nearly every page, Bill rarely ceasing to survey the damage or assess the consequences, moral or otherwise. Double-crosses often meet with grisly comeuppances in his masculinist America. Some characters—for instance, a mangy brotherhood of barmen and inbreds with nicknames like Dodge and Elbow—seem almost unfairly penalized in Kafkaesque perpetuity. Death is described in ungracious terms (“words found silence”), Bill’s blunt prose as unflinching as his killers. Bones break because they are broken. Motives are rendered irrelevant or moot. Indeed, a great deal of pain must be doled out before this unsympathetic and often despicable cast of motley characters even arrive at the titular main event: a rancid carnival of unseemly capitalism, fueled by crank and brown liquor and glistening with chicken grease.

One monster in particular earns the most ink and spills the most blood: a folk anti-hero named Chainsaw Angus, a vicious sumbitch drawn to Donnybrook perhaps by fate. With his embittered cohort Liz, he cooks and peddles crystal meth–that is, until greed and an interloper called Ned disrupts their already frayed kinship. Neither damsel in distress nor femme fatale, Liz shacks up with those who might get her a step ahead or at least another bump. Her opportunistic shortsightedness invariably thrusts her into constant peril. Considered toothsome by the standards of the toothless, she reflexively assaults the first woman she comes across, a counterproductive move that only adds to her woes. In rancorous pursuit of her, Ned, and a coveted supply of purloined product, Angus finds his journey littered with landmines and roadblocks. So too does Fu Xi, a principled yet perverse enforcer, who purposefully attacks pressure points using nimble hands and acupuncture needles like some B-movie stereotype. Though his presence mostly appears as a Billy Jack rebuttal to rednecks’ gleefully racist outbursts, his chopsocky minstrelsy suits Donnybrook’s pervasive pulp.

Once the survivors of these barfly brawls and murderous melees arrive at the Donnybrook, winning takes on multiple, conflicting meanings. After enduring so much havoc on the road, one might think a bare-knuckle winner-take-all contest with a six-figure purse for the last man standing a welcome reprieve. Angus, his local legend having preceded him, would rather be anywhere else than the sprawling acreage that hosts this annual amateur slugfest. Yet like all the rest in their rucksacks and beat up jalopies, he too has all brought chaos along. Not long after pulling in, Jarhead Johnny Earl, the closest thing the novel has to a moral center, looks upon the scene with sadness and distaste:

Worst thing about making a living with your hands, you’re always surrounded by lives being carved out by abuse. It’s how they survive.

Propped up from the opening chapter as the virtuous yang to Angus’ obsidian yin, Jarhead hardly qualifies for sainthood, having funded his Donnybrook slot by robbing a gunstore owner of the precise entry fee. His tale takes somewhat of a backseat to Angus’, a quizzical narrative decision that makes his eventual prominence towards the end feel forced.

Abuse abounds, and the beatings take a toll even for the observer. Presumably, Bill intends for Fu’s eye-popping Eastern methods and hidden agendas to elicit curiosity, but instead they needlessly overcomplicate a plot already stuffed with players willfully stomping their identities into red blurs. Utterly ridiculous and altogether unnecessary is the inclusion of a soothsaying ferryman named Purcell. A harbinger of things to come, perhaps, he aids, abets, and advises Jarhead for reasons not immediately apparent. The last thing needed in the visceral, corporeal world of Donnybrook is mysticism.

Purcell’s prophesies might be palatable if Jarhead weren’t such an underdeveloped protagonist. Whether fending off the advances of a tween prostitute or the teeth of a vicious dog, his jaunt pales in comparison to Angus’ odyssey. Call it hero fatigue, but Jarhead comes out grey compared to the flashes of crimson, yellow, and black bursting from the rest of his peers. Though Bill apparently desires bigger things from him, the most righteous and least corruptible man proves more two-dimensional than the leering yokels that exist to stand in his way.

Unashamedly self-taught, Bill hasn’t just constructed this world out of thin air. The hardscrabble truths within his ballad of bloodlust suggest more than mere active imagination. Before everything goes completely off the rails, Angus and Liz sit in a factory’s parking lot dealing from their car, a sight that Bill’s assuredly encountered as a blue collar workingman. Furthermore, the detailed account of how they make meth reveals all except the recipe’s precise measurements. The ease with which he guides his crooks and cretins–from county to county, tavern to tavern, shack to shack–keeps the novel grounded just enough in the real world. If Donnybrook in any way reflects Frank Bill’s world, it’s amazing he’s still breathing, let alone lucid enough to write it all down.

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