In the first few chapters of his debut novel, Frank Bill introduces more characters than the Waltons have kin. Some of those characters don’t last two pages. Some are dead already. The rest are on their way to Donnybrook, even though it’s the last place any of them want to go. Donnybrook is a middle-of-nowhere farm, and the setting for an annual bare-knuckle battle. Twenty fighters go head-to-head over three days, till only one man is left standing.
The story begins with Jarhead, who robs exactly $1,000 from a gun store: the amount needed to enter Donnybrook and have a chance to win the prize money that would lift his young family out of poverty. Then there’s sex-fiend Liz, who teams up ruthless, toothless Ned to double-cross her crank cooking brother, Angus, stealing his new batch of top-quality drugs to sell to the Donnybrook crowd. Angus, who also happens to be a legendary bare-knuckle boxer, tears after them. In turn, deputy sheriff Whalen, is hunting Angus for killing his illegitimate son, and on the way he runs into the martial arts and acupuncture expert, Fu, who’s out to recover a debt from Angus and Liz.
Bill shows no mercy for his characters, running each one of them through several, unimaginable (for most of us) circles of hell. But the violence is rarely mindless. Every character, however misguided, is highly driven to do what they do. And almost every individual’s motivation is at odds with at least one other, piling up the anticipation for when they all inevitably meet at Donnybrook.
The prose is vivid and visceral, especially the fight scenes. Bill manages to accurately portray intricate movements and action without losing pace. These set pieces are often imaginative, original and horrific. He shows it hasn’t all been done before:
‘Angus raised the pistol, germinated the air with each man’s complexion.’
There’s a definite cinematic quality to the whole narrative, but some techniques work better in movies than in novels. The point of view here can shift as rapidly as a sequence of Guy Ritchie smash cuts. We’re inside every main character’s head, and the perspective can swing from one to the other in the space of a few short paragraphs. The action too shifts back and forth along the trail to Donnybrook, as some get there earlier than others, and the confusion is only compounded when incidental characters get names like Elbow, Moon, Goat and Walkup.
Fortunately though, Bill isn’t interested in simple red-necksploitation. He clearly has great sympathy for his characters, and for America’s rural poor. He makes a clear case that the collapse of industry and the lack of investment has left those former mine, farm or timber workers with few opportunities than to cook meth or brew eyeball-drying alcohol or enter into fatal fist-fighting competitions. And it looks like he’s got a lot more to say on the issue too. Those still standing at the end of Donnybrook are left angrier than a diamondback that’s lost his rattle, and they’re even more determined to rub their grudges, leaving us to look forward to another round of bourbon-fuelled hell in a future follow-up. Sometime soon, I hope.
Any Cop?: If you like your whiskey sour, your rib-eyes barbecued black, and your tobacco thick and chewy, then Donnybrook’s the book for you, providin’ you’s learned yer letters good. Frank Bill is no newcomer to the hick-lit genre – he’s already published a collection of short stories, Crimes in Southern Indiana – so anyone who enjoys Daniel Woodrell and Donald Ray Pollock is sure to welcome this debut novel to the stable. Equally, if you’re the type that can still sleep soundly after reading some of Cormac McCarthy’s grimmer work (e.g. Child of God), then Donnybrook might just be the challenge your constitution’s looking for. Jim Dempsey