I came upon Frank Bill's work by way of reading Donald Ray Pollock (who, in turn, I was directed to because Chuck Palahniuk referenced the strength of his work in an interview), and Frank rightfully belongs in such honorable company as those bold and brutal authors. Having read his first book, a collection of short stories titled Crimes in Southern Indiana (which I loved), I bought his debut novel soon after and only recently got around to reading it.
The premise begins as a simple one: there is an annual three-day event called the Donnybrook that takes place in backwoods Indiana where men pay a $1,000 registration fee to fight each other inside a wire fence ring, bare-knuckled, in groups of twenty at once until only one is left standing to go on to the next round. The grand prize? $100k. Onlookers camp all around the thousand acre grounds, betting on the fights, grilling up meat, snorting meth and other narcotics, and drinking copious amounts of hard liquor and cheap beer. The whole event is put on (and the prize money fronted by) an independently wealthy fatcat with a lust for bloodshed named Belmont McGill.
Given the title, the premise, and my familiarity with Frank's first book, I knew I would be in for a gruesome ride with Donnybrook. I wasn't wrong; this book is brutal. There was one particular torture scene involving tiny blades being inserted at pressure points in the body that I found genuinely difficult to continue reading. I was squirming in my seat, literally. Now that's powerful literature.
That said, Frank isn't just writing a slasher book here; he's building a world that is characterized by grittiness and terror, a version of which exists in the backyard of our own country. His writing is a cornucopia of textures and pitch-perfect descriptions. The man is a master of details, laying out scenes, environments, and the physical features of his characters with vivid (often cringe-worthy) accuracy. For the reader, there is no question of the scent of a meth-cooking house, the sound of a sawed-off shotgun being fired indoors, or the taste of blood mixed with gravel.
My only criticism is that the wide cast of characters in Donnybrook are, at times, almost indiscernible from one another. There are several storylines taking place between a few main “protagonists,” carrying along on their own paths until everything culminates at the Donnybrook. While the stories are technically clear and unique in purpose, I found myself getting mixed up with just who was who and why each was doing what because nearly all of them (particularly the men) are equally despicable. The two possibly redeemable figures are a tough but moral sheriff named Whalen and a young man, Jarhead, who is admittedly misled but has pure motives. Other than that, everyone is a wretch, and while this can be fun in the beginning it was at hard times to stick with a novel where everyone is a horrific human being.
That said, this book is still a spectacle to behold and, I must confess, a pretty fun ride front to back. I found myself grinning during numerous passages because, doggone it, there's just nothin' like some good ass-kickin' in the old American backcountry.