September 15, 2011
When you think of places where crime lurks, locations where you should keep the car rolling through stop signs, where you never stop to ask for directions, a few names may pop into your head. Maybe you think of Detroit or East St. Louis, Baltimore or Miami. It’s time to add Corydon, Indiana, to that list, as well as the entire southern part of the state.
In Frank Bill’s violent, gut-wrenching, and heartfelt collection of short stories, Crimes in Southern Indiana, there is nowhere safe to hide—the criminals are happy to walk right in the front door pointing a shotgun in your face, spitting tobacco on the floor. A granddaughter is sold as a sex slave. A war veteran tries to forget the killings he committed out in the field as well as the abuse he inflicted on his family at home. Dogfights turn into moments of self-preservation and sudden morality. Family turns on itself while the police provide inadequate protection. All of this unfolds with a raw, unflinching portrayal of meth heads, delinquents, and lost souls searching for a way out. The stories are interlinked and overlapping, as it has to be in any small town, the hero in one story meeting his demise in another, the lawmaker in one tale becoming the criminal in the next.
Early on we get a strong sense of what life what must be like in Corydon and the surrounding communities. In “All the Awful” we witness the sale of Audry by her grandfather, ironically named Able, into slavery, her young flesh an easy commodity to move on the black market:
“One of the man’s hands gripped Audry’s wrists above her head. Forced them to the ground. She bucked her pelvis up. Wanted him off of her. The other hand groped the rounded shapes beneath her soiled wifebeater. Her eyes clasped. Held tears. The man’s tobacco-stained lips and bourbon breath dragged against her neck.”
Suffice it to say that Audry has a bit of spite and spirit left, unwilling to succumb to the fate that has been dealt to her. It’s a quick lesson on family and the men that inhabit the town she lives in, something she’ll surely never forget.
The fact that meth is a part of the lifestyle in Crimes in Southern Indiana is no shock—rural communities fall victim to the widespread drug, cheap to sell but dangerous to manufacture, explosions riddling the countryside and across the southlands. Eager to show both sides of the coin in his depiction of drug use and prosecution, Frank Bill takes on the mindset of the addict in “The Need,” painting a vivid picture of an addled mind:
“Speeding into the gravel curve, Wayne lost control of the Ford Courier, stomped the gas instead of the brake. Gunned the engine and met the wilderness of elms head-on. His head split the windshield, creating warm beads down his forehead, while flashbacks of an edge separating flesh and a screaming female amped through his memory.
Blood flaked off as Wayne balled his hands into fists, remembering the need he could no longer contain.”
We might be able to muster some sympathy for a man such as Wayne, if his barbaric acts earlier in the book, and still to come in this story, weren’t so heinous. In fact, one of the moral dilemmas that Frank Bill presents to us is this very duality of human nature. How can someone wish death upon another while at the same time seething at the violent acts that have just been committed? It’s hypocritical to condemn the same killings and brutality that eventually worm their way into your flesh and blood, your jaw clenched, temples throbbing for revenge, and justice. The plight of the vigilante is understood across these stories, even if we are constantly uncertain who is the darkest soul on the page.
This need to condemn while also striving to understand is evident in the story “The Old Mechanic.” We are told of his back story, his abuse of a wife, violent and unflinching, and yet later, we see this man as a victim of the wars he fought, forever traumatized, unable to deal with his fears and emotions, lashing out at those around him. The following two examples illustrate this nauseating problem:
“Here was a time when the shell shock of war was ignored. What the repercussions of warfare did to a man’s brain. The seeing, hearing, and participating. And like the war, the abusing of a woman was overlooked. People pretended it never happened. This was a time when till-death-do-us-part was an enforced rule of matrimony. When wives didn’t leave their husbands. They obeyed them.”
Paired with this later passage, the Old Mechanic tries to bond with his grandson, Frank, who fears and hates him, clutching his knife, ready to defend so much as a stray hand placed on his head:
“Frank is torn between not knowing the Old Mechanic and wanting to know him. He places the stories he’s grown up with in the back of his mind, the cinnamon candy and Tom and Jerry, the dead dog, and remembers what his mother told him: the Old Mechanic deserves a chance.
Frank stands up and faces the Old Mechanic, places a hand on his shoulder, knowing the Old Mechanic could just be tricking him. He’s not letting go of this bayonet. But he also wants to know. ‘Really, you really served in a real war, in World War Two? You really killed people?’”
Another lesson that we are taught is to stand up for your own and take care of whatever family business needs to be settled, over any span of time, in whatever way you deem appropriate. The death of her father, the slaughter that took place on her property, it fills Abby (and policeman Billy Hines as well) with echoes that never stop reverberating, pulling her forward on a leash that cannot be severed:
“The girl thumbed the hammer of the .45-caliber Colt. Then the safety. He thought he’d gotten away with what he’d done ten years ago. He’d been questioned. Had an alibi. Then he was forgotten when her grandfather wouldn’t talk.
But when the girl swung the tin door open none of that would matter. Because she was carrying on his wisdom. And watching from the four-by-four, Billy Hines could forgive himself and her grandfather could rest in peace after his granddaughter pulled the trigger, just as he had that night ten years ago, until the clip was empty.”
With Crimes in Southern Indiana, we bear witness to a series of tragedies that snowball across the crossroads of America, one minute struggling to digest the atrocities that have been revealed, the next minute applauding the vicious retribution that is dealt out with no remorse. By forcing us to be a part of these events, and this community, Bill pulls us into a web of complicated family dynamics, laws that hold no value, and an entrepreneurial attitude that can only be called survival. Revealing vivid details, visceral language and an honesty that cannot be denied, Frank Bill has left a stained and dog-eared diary behind for those that are brave enough to open it.