Jarhead Earl is the best fighter in southeastern Kentucky. He’s also broke with two babies to feed. His ticket out of poverty is winning an annual high-stakes underground bare-knuckle fight tournament held in the wilds of Southern Indiana. But he’s not the only one headed for the ring in Frank Bill’s first novel, “Donnybrook,” which continues the exploration he began in his acclaimed story debut, “Crimes in Southern Indiana,” of a violent Midwestern Gothic people and landscape.
“Crimes” made Bill’s backwoods noir style a favorite, intriguingly enough, of GQ magazine, which named his collection one of the staff’s favorite books of 2011.
Bill writes fearlessly about the wild misadventures of people who live on the edge, like drug dealers, addicts, gun runners and two-bit crooks (not exactly the GQ demographic) skimming a living in impoverished country towns. “Donnybrook” doesn’t paint a pretty picture of rural America, but Bill says there’s a lot of truth in his darkly funny stories.
“I never really think of it as funny until I read it, until I get an entire scene done, because I always kind of draw from people and things I’ve been around,” says Bill, who lives in Corydon. “I’m always thinking what’s some of the craziest metaphors or people or subjects or situations I’ve been in, and how can you make it more upside down than it already is?”
Bill’s characters, like Jarhead and his counterpart, undefeated fighter-turned-meth dealer Chainsaw Angus, are based on people he says “nobody wants to pay attention to.”
“Those people do exist, in little niches throughout your, I guess what you want to call your country folk or backwoods society, the way people talk about them,” he says. “In the end they’re still human beings, and even though they’re doing something you don’t agree with that’s how they get by and how they live their lives.”
Which isn’t to say the novel is thinly-veiled nonfiction. Bill says he doesn’t have first-hand knowledge of an underground fight scene around his native Southern Indiana, but he’s heard stories.
“I made all of it up,” he says with a laugh. “Around ’94, ’95, when I studied traditional Chinese martial arts. One of the guys I studied with, he worked at a place in Charlestown and says guys always talked about these underground fights.”
“None of us ever went, though,” he adds. “Did they ever exist? I don’t know, besides the rumors he would spew in class.”
The Donnybrook functions as a looming metaphor for the ruined landscape of poverty and crime Bill’s characters must navigate to stay alive. All you need is a little seed money, and if you’re the toughest, smartest fighter in the ring, you walk away alive.
Jarhead is the moral center of the story, breaking the law only when necessary — robbing a gun store to get the entry fee for the Donnybrook, to evade police after the robbery — while his counterpart, Angus, is a dangerous, volatile man who sets off an epic multi-layered chase when he and his degenerate sister Liz murder their pharmaceutical supplier. At first, Bill says, Angus was the hero of the story, but he needed someone to fight, so Jarhead was born. Most would say that a novel needs a sympathetic hero, but Bill’s not necessarily convinced.
“Well, the people I write about, there’s not necessarily always someone to root for,” he says. “Sometimes people don’t change.”
Bill will read from “Donnybrook” at Carmichael’s Bookstore on Friday at 7 p.m. He’ll also read at Destinations Booksellers in New Albany on March 16 (2 p.m.) and 21C Museum Hotel on Monday, March 25 in the Sarabande Reading Series (7:30 p.m.).