Monday, March 26, 2012

Frank Bill's Crimes In Southern Indiana

There's a scene in the criminally underrated MMA movie Warrior in which ex-Marine Tommy Riordan enters the octagon and brutalizes his opponent in a matter of seconds.  When it's clear the man's down for the count, Tommy angrily tosses his mouthpiece on the canvas and stalks out of the arena.  No hand raised in victory.  No basking in the crowd's cheers.  Tommy is violence distilled into human form. 

The first time I read Frank Bill's Crimes in Southern Indiana, I felt like Tommy's opponent in Warrior.  Disoriented and not entirely sure what just happened.  By now, chances are you're at least familiar Crimes In Southern Indiana.  You've read the metaphors comparing the prose to uppercuts and rabbit punches.  And maybe,as one reviewer claimed, you'll be a little more likely to lock your doors and roll up your windows should you ever find yourself an hour or so south of Indianapolis, Indiana.

But this review isn't about the first time I read Crimes in Southern Indiana.  This review is about how the book has evolved since I first picked it up.  That evolution started on a bone-cold Indiana evening in mid-February.  I received word from home that my grandfather had died of pancreatic cancer.  I was leaving dinner with Frank Bill--whom I had met for the first time about an hour before--and we were on our way to Writer Night at Second Story, an event I helped organize that would feature a reading from Crimes In Southern Indiana.

A quick call to my wife and a decision was made: we'd leave the next day.

"He'd be proud you had a hand in this," she said.

Home was 350 miles away in western Pennsylvania, and the last place I ever expected to find any comfort was in the words of man whose stories are populated by meth addicts, criminals, deranged veterans, low-lifes, and damaged souls.

So--somewhat guiltily--I went to Writer Night.  And I listened to Frank read "Officer Down (Tweakers)".  That one's about a cop who ends up killing an estranged friend caught up in the meth business.

It wasn't until the Q&A session that I began to understand what made Frank's literary clock tick.  It's not the acts of extreme violence that his characters visit upon one another.  It's not a political statement about economic policy and its effect on rural living.  Rather, it's a sense of place.  Of where he came from.  Of who raised him, and how.  Of what's gone and what it's been replaced with.

I'm not from southern Indiana.  I'm not even from Indiana.  I grew up in western Pennsylvania in the shadow of a failing steel industry where jobs are hard to come by and empty factories have become as much a part of the scenery as the rolling hills on which they sit.  Ask most people in the valley—that's what we call our little portion of the rust belt—and they can tell you exactly where they were when Sharon Steel idled its last blast furnace and shut its doors.

I was twelve, and I heard it on the radio in our kitchen.

That's where I grew up, but that's not where I'm from.  Where I'm from--and where you're from and where Frank is from--is other people.  The people who raised us.  The people who raised those people.  The choices I make and the life I live are the direct result of the choices men like my grandfather made and the life he led.  He served in the Navy, he played college football, and he spent a year working in Venezuela.  He played in a Tamburitza band called Svi Skupa--"all together" in Croatian.  In their own small way, each of these things--and so many more--informed who I am today.

Each character in Crimes of Southern Indiana has a story.  They make the choices they make--as poor as those choices may be--for a reason.  It's no accident that so many of Frank's stories contain some sort of familial tie.  Grandparents to grandchild.  Father to son.  Each meth-head, each criminal, each deranged veteran, each low-life, and each damaged soul is someone's son, someone's mother, someone's friend, someone's grandfather.  The stories flow both ways, from generation to generation.  And because of that, they are undeniably real.

Frank's work is violent and disturbing and--yes, as so many reviewers have pointed out--it sucker punches you with its terse sentences.  For lack of a better term, it's simply bad ass.  But underneath it all, it's about the place where Frank grew up and the people he comes from.  It's about why people make the choices they do.  Somehow, I missed that on the first go 'round.

Bill Arbanas, August 6, 1928 - February 10, 2012

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