When I encounter a title like the one gracing the cover of Frank Bill’s debut collection of stories, I take heart: It must be evidence of a marketing department having lost at least one battle. The very fact that small-town Middle America has traded its working-class history for a meth-lab present is both emblematic and a result of the ruling class’s indifference. And Bill’s Southern Indiana is unrelentingly bleak and violent, effecting the sort of cold beauty portrayed in a film like Winter’s Bone or, yes, the landscape of Cormac McCarthy.
Bill’s use of language is impeccable, direct in even its metaphors and appropriately clunky, playing with cliché as a common language. Take the opening sentence of a story found halfway through the book, “A Coon Hunter’s Noir”—a title that tilts toward self-parody but is, actually, spot on. He writes, “J.W. Duke was choking down his fifth cup of kettle coffee, nursing a hangover, when his wife, Margaret, came through the kitchen door, screaming as if her skin had been pressed through a cheese grater.” All of these images are iconic in their own way: The kettle coffee, the husband with the hangover, the screeching wife. But there’s something about the cheese grater as the lone object on hand to provide the metaphor that speaks to the way people live.
There is more Tarantino in this South than there is Barry Hannah, as seen in “All That Awful,” in which a woman is sold into prostitution by her grandfather. The stories are outsized—it’s not Bill’s project to reflect life as it is so much as to portray the frayed mind state of people who feel surrounded by violence. And it’s an intoxicating ride.