If your best chance of securing a future is to fight in a “Donnybrook,” a three day fighting match where ponying up $1,000 gets you in, and your chances of getting out in one piece are slim, then maybe you need to reconsider the path you have chosen. Frank Bill’s gritty, violent, and grim debut novel, Donnybrook (FSG Originals) is not for the faint of heart, as the body count is high, and the actions desperate and brutal. But buried in the bruised flesh are the stories of Jarhead, a desperate fighter, Angus, a drug dealer, and Fu, a martial arts enforcer—men with a strange sense of honor that lurks beneath their questionable actions, doing what they have to do in order to survive, to protect their own, and to please their employers. Meth cookers and dealers, drunks and addicts, whores and hustlers, they all scrounge for a meager existence, one that inevitably leads them to the Donnybrook.
In order to fully appreciate the actions of our cast of characters, you have to be able to picture the settings of Southern Indiana, the way some people live down there. With an authority that reveals his many years in these rural towns, Frank Bill shows us in vivid details the places and sensations of life on the fringe:
“Logs had started to moss over. Matched the tin roof’s shade, hunter green. The Blue River ran just as green on the other side of the road. That hint of fish smell wafted into Whalen’s inhale. The yard was littered with beer cans and pine needles. A small brown fridge sat on the wooden deck up next to the cabin’s front door.”
You can almost hear the purdy, purdy, purdy of a Cardinal in the distance, a flash of its red feathers, the rapid-fire pecking of a Pileated Woodpecker like gunfire. Wood smoke, and the sound of gravel under tires as they slow to a stop, the world that Frank Bill has created is a backdrop for the violence that unfolds at every turn.
But Frank Bill’s gift for realistic, layered settings isn’t the only way that he pulls you into his story. He creates tension by showing us the paranoia of his shady characters as they go about their dark deeds, and by revealing that, in many instances, that sensation of being watched, of being tracked, is not unfounded. Scattered across the countryside, these lost souls are hidden in the woods, lurking in haylofts, squatting in abandoned cabins, and up to no good:
“He’d watched the towering man enter the barn. Same man he’d watched smoking nights back. Sized him up as he gazed at the tools and animal traps on the wall. Watched one of his long arms decorated with inked lettering, vines, and skulls remove the sickle from the wall while his other arm touched a gun handle pressed down the front of his waistband. The sight drove a shiver through his figure.
He pulled the spit from the flame with an animal-hide glove, blowing the meat to cool it, wonder what the man and women were doing in the old house, what they were cooking the other night that smelt so god-awful. Biting into the meat, he hoped they’d leave soon. Or he’d have to bring chaos to the farm like his father had years ago.”
Frank Bill lays out these steppingstones, and we follow him down that path. But we are never quite sure who is the spider and who is the fly. What’s that line from the award-winning comic by Alan Moore, The Watchmen: “Who watches the watchmen?” In this case, too, the guardians and heroes of our story are criminals and deviants, antiheroes, and here too we are counting on them to get us through this story intact, even rooting for one man over another, to win the Donnybrook, to get back home safe to his wife and kids, no matter how many scurrilous men he kills.
And what of that Donnybrook? The novel builds to that moment for 145 pages, as we wait to see what happens when all of our main characters descend on the farmland of Bellmont McGill. We are not denied the spectacle and sport. It is everything we hoped it would be, and more:
“In the frays of field grass there were enough dented, dirty, and rusted vehicles to fill ten football fields, maybe more. From them, onlookers got out with lawn chairs and provisions. Set up camp. Their forest fires scented the air with smoke and the whole chickens or slabs of venison, goat, squirrel, rabbit, or coon they grilled. It’s what they’d do for the next three days. Sell their food to others. Sit chasing pills and crank with swigs of bourbon or home brew. Watch twenty men enter a thirty-by-thirty barbed-wire ring, fight till one man was left standing. Then another twenty numbers were called for the next free-for-all. Till Sunday, when the winning men were left to fight till one man stood bloody and toothless waiting for his cash prize.”
And what of these men? What are they made of? They are raw hunger and brute strength:
“They circled and bumped on another like predators. Men with talcum teeth, skin cleaved by scars. Hair braided, slicked, or stringy. Short or shaved. Bearded or stubbled. Tall. Short. Lean, hard, or fat-bellied. They came in all demeanors. Donning bibs or jeans ragged as the boots laced around their feet. These were the backwoods bare-knuckle fighters.”
Above and beyond the fighting and betrayal—the broken arms, shattered teeth, and bloodstained canvas—Frank Bill is able to make us care about these men. We root for Jarhead to make it out alive, knowing his options in life are limited, his family counting on him to get back home alive. We marvel at the calm violence that is Fu, his ability to torture and disarm, to make the human body do exactly what he wants, with his martial arts voodoo, and his needles. We watch the bloodshed unfold with gape-jawed wonder at the vengeance Angus inflicts on those that have betrayed him, hesitant to align ourselves with him, but understanding his need for justice, anyway. With an unflinching eye, Frank Bill has created a dark world, one of desperation and loss, showing us a part of the country, and humanity, that we would be smart to avoid. There is danger and death on this roller coaster ride, but we pay our admission, and climb aboard, nonetheless—grinning as we hold our ticket, strapped in and ready to go—sweaty and sick, swallowing back bile, our eyes wide open to the horrors that lie ahead.