09 March, 2014

Donnybrook: No Longer Just the Misremembered Name of a Country Singer

Donnybrook isn't a good book. Go read Crimes in Southern Indiana instead. If I had stopped there, I would have been a happier man and I wouldn't have to write this screed. But that is a road not taken. Here I am. Angry. Bitter. And with the knowledge of so much wasted time burning at the back of my skull.

Donnybrook is never seemed like a book that would suffer from being too classy. It certainly begins with a fine impression. When we first meet each of the principle characters (a desperate, if well meaning good ol' boy-cum-family man, a troubled cop with a tragic past that doesn't matter, and a guy named 'Chainsaw'), we meet them doing what they do best. They are robbing, shooting, and cooking their way off of the page and into our hearts. The lives of these men is a hard-scrabble life at best. Life was never easy for these folks, especially not in this economy (a fact, I feel like we were told more than once, but maybe I am just misremembering my own questionable works of fiction). As a beginning, it's strong.



This all sour as soon as the plot begins in earnest. That is to say, it goes sour as soon as the lack of a plot develops. Because Donnybrook is not so much a story as it is a series of scenes cut at their most interesting point and inserted somewhere else. It is a technique that reminds me of the kind of movies we got in the 90's after Pulp Fiction had its moment in the sun. And like that great glut of movies, this story is found lacking. Instead we are reminded of better stories-- stories like the kind that made up Frank Bill's last book.

As a story, Donnybrook is nothing but smoke and mirrors. We bounce from scene to scene before we can get bored or notice that this scene makes no sense. Smoke and mirrors posing as a structure can still hold an audience captive, but the the bits between the smoke and the mirrors have to be interesting. Unfortunately, in this case, they are not. Instead we are given men named Chainsaw and a Chinese man named Fu, who might be the only named character of color in the entire book (though, luckily, minorities are spared the vomit-coated brush that Bill paints all of his white characters with). The Chinese man is named Fu. Do you want to guess what he is an expert in? I'll give you a hint: He doesn't own a restaurant and he doesn't run a laundry.

It is that special combination of gritty and trite that eventually tipped me over from mild boredom to full blown anger. I cannot pin point when this happened. It might have been when the back-country soothsayer was introduced. It might have been when I said "Fuck you" into the book. The two events might have been related. Of this I cannot be sure.

As a target of my annoyance, I eventually fixated on how taudry the book is, on how fascinated it seems to be with the most ugly things in the world. I became annoyed because it put a spotlight on these things not to tell a story or to make a point, but to show them because it could. These things are there to get a rise out of me for lack of anything better.

We couldn't get characters that we can have empathy for or enjoy the company of. Instead, like some smelly, drunken Richard Stark charicature, we get action after stupid, crap-slick action. An attempted rape? Sure. A racist cripple? Yeah, okay. Haven't seen that in a while. Another scene in a bar? I've never been to Indiana before, but I am willing to believe that it is made up solely of bars. Children literally biting the ankles of a terrible cop? Go on. What about underage prostitution? Toss that in there too! Secret incest family? Sure. What the hell!  It worked for that broad who wrote The Flowers in the Attic and she got at least two movies out of the deal!

Towards the end of the book there's a description of prize fighters huffing spray paint and I had to wonder, with so many other drugs readily available, why they would bother with such lame high school shit? Are they art major drop outs? Is Frank Bill including these scenes because he's playing a game of white trash bingo with himself? Do I actually care?

In black and white, as a list, these things all sound kind of cool. Even making fun of it, I have this thought in the back of my head that I missed how cool they really were. There is no reason that these horrible thing can't be fun ("fun" being, perhaps a relative term. . .).  We want to read about crankheads and bare knuckle boxers, to be enticed by a story, and to believe it if only for the beauty of the prose.

Writers like Cormac McCarthy, Jason Aaron, Garth Ennis, and sometimes even Nick Cave understand how to do this. These are men who write about violence, often in the same kind of back country that Bill sets this story in. They are different from Bill because they know how to forge these horrors into a story. Frank Bill puts forth these ideas like your cat puts forth a dead rat. There is no poetry to it.

Again: The problem is not the inclusion of these things. The problem is that all of this dope snorting, face punching, bear-trap snapping nonsense isn't attached to anything worthwhile. It's just stuff. It's just an ugly pile of stuff. It's a drunk man showing up at your door with a sack full of broken glass saying that he brought you a new window. It's exactly that.


The reason for all of this praise is likely down to Frank Bill being an example of the American dream. He's a guy who came out of nowhere, with his own voice, who wrote a book that, despite its flaws, does violently clip the reality of modern America. He is also a guy who seems like he would drive straight to Missouri and kick Daniel Woodrell's ass if he didn't get a good blurb out of the man.


Crimes in Southern Indiana might not be a great book, but it is a good one. It's solid as a rock. It has a unique voice and does suffer from the kind of sawed-off fragment sentences that litter Donnybrook ("Butted the hot barrel through Dote's hand" and "Released the man's arm. Listened to him grunt and thud into timber" are the kinds of sentences that seem to exist solely as a bloody-minded challenge to any copy-editor who will take them on).

Each chapter in Crimes is not so much a short story as it is a sharp slice through a brutal America. There is something tangible about those stories. And even if you don't quite believe them, they do not overstay their welcome. They are notable for being good stories about brutish things.

Donnybrook has all of the same energy as Bill's first book, yet this energy is going in all of the wrong directions. Instead of taking the kinds of scenes that made Crimes stick out and building a bigger world out of them, they are chopped up, tossed around, and garnished with a sprig of pubic hair. Its length, like its violence, exists merely to exist. It's a shame, because any writer that is this fascinated with having people step on fox traps is a guy who should be actively encouraged to write more. He seems like he should be my kind of writer.

All of this made me think of Mr. Rogers. Besides his impeccible sense of style, he a man who exists as a complete contrast to modern America. He is quiet and kind and has a kind of unimpunable sincerity that I find utterly baffling. Writing this review made me think of this quote:
I think that it’s much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger — much more dramatic than showing something of gunfire. - See more at: http://www.current.org/1969/05/i-give-an-expression-of-care-every-day-to-each-child/#sthash.Gf56XCaO.dpuf

I think it is much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger-- Much more dramatic than showing something of gunfire.

I think that it’s much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger — much more dramatic than showing something of gunfire. - See more at: http://www.current.org/1969/05/i-give-an-expression-of-care-every-day-to-each-child/#sthash.Gf56XCaO.dpuf

I think that it’s much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger — much more dramatic than showing something of gunfire. - See more at: http://www.current.org/1969/05/i-give-an-expression-of-care-every-day-to-each-child/#sthash.Gf56XCaO.dpuf
Mr. Rogers wrote a perfect review of this book before Frank Bill was even born.



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