Book Review: Crimes in Southern Indiana

These are my reviews/thoughts/musings of books that I have read recently. All books rated on a scale of 1-5. Today’s review is on Frank Bill’s blistering 2011 debut ‘Crimes in Southern Indiana’.

I’m just going to say this up here: if you like Quentin Tarantino movies, this book reads like a never-stopping, backwoods Quentin Tarantino story, with cringe-inducing violence, tight prose and a distinctly noir setting.

This collection of 17 mostly unconnected stories taking place in the deep southern part of Indiana never takes its foot off the gas–within a page, we’re immediately transported into a drug deal in a motel room. Over the next few hundred pages, we’re going to spend time with meth addicts blowing heads off of people, women stabbing men in the throat with a fork, and a man murdering his first cousin to end his incestual relationship with her. There are very little good people in any of these stories, and Bill’s tales deny all hope for improvement in this corner of America.

In my last review, discussing The New York Trilogy, I discussed how New York is so often the centerpiece of media and stories as the main hub of our country. Southern Indiana couldn’t be more opposite–it isn’t talked about, seen or heard of in just about any medium. I went to college in Indiana, and never found a reason to venture to the southern part of the state. It is the epitome of ‘drive by country’.

This book, while clearly over the top, presents it as a forgotten wasteland of kettle coffee, cigarettes (Bill likes to refer to these as ‘coffin nails’), and hunting dogs. True to its title, every story here features some kind of crime, most of them horrific. It’s a corner of the country the rest of us have forgotten, and it has devolved into a barren space with meth streaming through its veins, grandfathers selling granddaughters into prostitution and a heavy amount of bloodshed and gunplay. Beach reading this is not.

The stories themselves, while for the most part exciting, are not the strong suit of the book–as you start to become desensitized to the violence, the full-throttle nature of each story and the expectation of a dark ending for the central characters start to lose their effect. Each story is similar enough to start feeling some fatigue toward the middle, and the subject matter is bleak enough to make this a weary and slightly unpleasant read. What carries this book is Bill’s writing, which has a kind of sooty beauty to it, a clever kind of almost gumshoe-noir wordplay that paints this world in blood and tones of brown and grey.

I’ve seen other reviewers reference Cormac McCarthy here–other than it being set in an American Gothic setting and the high level of violence, his writing is nothing like McCarthy’s–yet Bill’s talent is undeniable. The man can write, and I’d be interested to see him channel his considerable abilities into a longer-length story. This is a strong debut, but one gets the feeling his best work is in front of him.

Listen, Crimes in Southern Indiana makes no qualms about what it is. The title is what you’re going to get here. Nobody is picking up this book and getting surprised by what’s inside the cover. However, if you have the stomach for it–if you can handle 17 short stories chock-full of mayhem, murder, drugs and other distasteful crimes committed in wife-beater tank tops–this book will pick you up as it’s already going full steam and throw you off when it’s done, leaving you slightly dazed, a little sick but no doubt impressed. 

Rating: ***

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