Review: Donnybrook, By Frank Bill

A literary shotgun blast to the face

The fact that part three of this visceral, bludgeoning debut novel is called "Pandemonium" made me laugh because, let me tell you, the preceding 198 pages hadn't exactly been a quiet cup of tea and a chat about the Radio 4 schedules.

Beginning with an armed robbery and going on to include a vast amount of shootings, attempted rape, torture and beatings, Donnybrook is as subtle as a 12-gauge shotgun blast to the face. And while it does have a certain amount of brutal anti-charm, the escalating ridiculousness of its excesses eventually detracts from the emotional impact of the novel.

With Crimes in Southern Indiana, his debut collection of short stories last year, Frank Bill announced himself as a coruscating new voice writing in the American rural noir tradition of Daniel Woodrell and Donald Ray Pollock. Guns, crime and crystal meth all figured heavily, and there was a brutal, Gothic authenticity to the stories, which depict the working classes and underclasses of the contemporary US with a clear and uncompromising eye.

Donnybrook ups the ante considerably, but Bill's characters and plot suffer as a result. The "Donnybrook" of the title is a no-holds-barred bare-knuckle fighting contest held somewhere in the backwoods of Indiana. Heats consist of 20 people in a ring punching the crap out of each other until only one is left standing. The heat winners then slug it out in a grand final for a $100,000 purse.

The book opens with a guy called Jarhead holding up a gun store in his local town to acquire the $1,000 entry fee. Jarhead is the nearest Donnybrook has to a moral centre – he might be committing crimes, but at least he's doing it in an attempt to make a better life for his wife and kids. Also, he's about the only character among the novel's main players not up to his eyeballs in crank (crystal meth).

Around Jarhead's story, Bill interweaves a bunch of other narratives. We quickly meet Chainsaw Angus, a legendary pugilist turned meth cooker and dealer, and Liz, his double-crossing sister. We meet Ned, a promising fighter, and Fu, a Chinese gangster and martial-arts expert working for an Asian bookie looking for repayment. Deputy Sheriff Ross Whalen, not without his own troubles to seek, plays catch up, chasing the trail of carnage as it weaves its way to an inevitable climax at the big fight.

As the novel progresses, though, Bill ratchets up the fighting and shooting to cartoonish levels: I lost count of the number of times someone is shot or beaten and just gets up again, to administer their own knuckle-based justice on the next page.

Crimes in Southern Indiana had an emotional core to it – it was an indictment of the poverty that has left America's underclass lawless and desperate. If such an emotional core exists here, it is too deeply buried beneath the slapstick violence to have any effect.