There’s Indiana, and there’s Indiana, roughly bisected east to west by old U.S. 40. Most everyone knows about the farm fields “north of 40,” but south of 40 is another matter entirely. Much of this is uplands, hilly and wooded country. A region settled from the South, one might even be tempted to call it “northern Kentucky”—though separated from the “dark and bloody ground” by the Ohio River—except these Hoosiers joke about Kentuckians. (Example. Q: “Why did they build the bridge across the Ohio River?” A: “So the Kentuckians can swim over in the shade.”)
The sister state to the south has yielded many chilling tales, but Frank Bill’s “Crimes in Southern Indiana” puts most of those in the shade. And Bill’s woebegone clans have more in common with Daniel Woodrell’s and William Gay’s Southern highlanders and the late Larry Brown’s redneck Mississippians than they do with the people “north of 40.”
Like Woodrell’s Ozarkers, Bill’s Hoosiers hunt, fish and even make music on the land occupied by their families for generations, but are largely unable to wring from it even the self-sufficiency their ancestors achieved. Some escape to religion, but Bill’s characters are mired in the crime culture distorted by hunger for illicit methamphetamines.
Bill’s vivid depictions of human depravities are unblinking, but again like Woodrell, he manifests a kind of redneck Shakespeare eloquence. His narratives are driven by simple sentences that are economically vivid: “Darnel laughed his carburetor laugh.”
And when it comes to crime—and law—he knows whereof he speaks. One of his law officers reflects that “being a conservation officer meant he’d more jurisdiction than regular law, could pull over a drunk driver, answer a domestic dispute, or bust a dope farm or a meth lab.” Absolutely true.
Yet in case the reader is tempted to think earthly justice may be achieved through the offices of such committed lawmen as those he profiles here, he hastens to report that the linked settings of his tales are now almost invariably governed by sheriffs and police bought and paid for, sometimes by the newly intrusive Latin cartels.
While these stories are set in interlocking geography and are peopled by recurring characters, they are not precisely chronological, though the fates of many of Bill’s people can be tracked across time and geography. But time and time again, horrors temporarily muted by faint unsentimental gestures of hope are rekindled but magnified. A young boy watches his mother murdered and seems poised for the same result, but his would-be killer reaches out his hand instead. A few stories later, the boy is a young man who is summarily dispatched, just as a young man he has brutally treated others.
The same story in which he is killed itself stands as a parable about how human justice of the biblical variety is not necessarily final. As the instinct for revenge meets an-eye-for-an-eye, the cycle can renew itself again and again until, well, there are no eyes left. Here, a victim of crime becomes an agent of justice, but she is not one of Bill’s male roughnecks but a girl “taught… how to twist punches into the [punching] bag with her hips at an early age. Taught… how to sight, load and shoot a gun… taught… about Old Testament wisdom.” Hoosier kin to Ree Dolly.
Here in Bill’s Southern Indiana, crime does not pay, except moment by moment, and ultimate outcomes have Old Testament inevitability about them. Hope’s proper place is in the hereafter.
Frank Bill’s truths are in a very raw place, both south of 40 and south of heaven. Start reading him in daylight, bring provisions and marshal your strength for your long journey back. (Martin Northway)
“Crimes in Southern Indiana: Stories”
By Frank Bill
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 282 pages, $15