Looking for literature with a high body count? You could go historical with Cormac McCarthy’s grisly masterpiece “Blood Meridian,” futuristic with Suzanne Collins’s dystopian “Hunger Games” trilogy or present-day with Frank Bill’s new “Donnybrook.”
Yes, the mayhem quotient is off the charts in Bill’s debut novel, but there is much more to “Donnybrook” than characters maimed and murdered in nightmarish ways. The cast is memorable, the dialogue crackles, the tension is unrelenting — and it all happens for a reason.
Except for the strong-willed Liz, the main “Donnybrook” characters are men: low-income, undereducated northern Kentucky/southern Indiana guys partial to booze, meth, sex, double-crossing and violence. Bill brings these rural toughs to life in short bursts, jumping from person to person and scene to scene every few pages. As the high-octane novel proceeds, many characters end up at a brutal contest called the Donnybrook, where participants in an open-air ring pummel one another in hopes of winning some serious cash.
You won’t find many likable people in this novel, and several characters vilely vent their racism. But all this nastiness is partly why “Donnybrook” is so compelling. Bill, a fork-truck operator turned author, knows the challenges these characters face: There are few jobs available. To survive financially, some of these ornery heartland have-nots do illegal things (sell drugs, steal, kill). “The American way had expired, been lost somewhere,” muses a man named Purcell. So, Bill’s characters fight one another. The Donnybrook contest is a grim metaphor for the misdirected anger of many Americans.
In one barroom brawl, Chainsaw Angus lines up an opponent “with a jab to the face. Rocked his skull back. Closed his swallowing with a cross to the throat. The man’s larynx shattered like porcelain. His hands grasped his throat for air that wouldn’t enter.” Ouch!
The eloquent savagery of those words might seem gratuitous, but America can be a violent place. A profane place, too. You’ll be riveted by the depravity while marveling at Bill’s skill at telling this testosterone-fueled tale.
Astor blogs about books for the Huffington Post and is the author of the 2012 memoir “Comic (and Column) Confessional.”
By Frank Bill
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Paperback, 242 pp. $15