Donnybrook: A Novel Book Review

It becomes clear very early into “Donnybrook: A Novel” that author Frank Bill has seen some stuff in his southern Indiana hometown.

When he isn’t working his day job in a factory, Bill has built his young writing career chronicling meth dealers, criminals, bare-knuckle fighters and all other varieties of desperate, dangerous and sometimes depraved characters on the wrong side of life, first in a collection of short stories titled “Crimes in Southern Indiana: Stories,” and now in his debut novel also set in the Hoosier State, “Donnybrook.”

Bill’s portrayals of life in southern Indiana, ravaged by poverty and unemployment, are unflinching and done with a level of detail that, despite the fictitious setting, suggests that he has plenty of first- and second-hand knowledge of the subject matter. The result is a thorough, graphic and wildly entertaining affair.

“Donnybrook” follows the winding and intersecting journeys of multiple characters — a murderous brother and sister who cook meth, a cop on their trail, a Chinese debt collector and a fighter nicknamed Jarhead, to name a few — as desire and circumstance leads them all to the Donnybrook, a three-day bare-knuckle tournament with a winner-takes-all cash prize.

Most of the novel takes place leading up to the Donnybrook, and what starts out as seemingly random acts of violence and mayhem soon connects and comes together in a very satisfying way. It’s a lesson in the butterfly effect, with the actions of each character having direct and indirect consequences that sometimes aren’t clear until several chapters later.

Those consequences might not be so bad under normal circumstances, but none of these characters are saints, and each of them has their own vices or sinister motivations that you are introduced to as the story progresses. All degrees of evil are covered in “Donnybrook,” and some of the things that you see and the people that you meet along the way will have your skin crawling.

Bill writes in a raw, often frantic style, with scenes stopping and starting suddenly and the narration ping-ponging between multiple third-person perspectives in every chapter. The tone and vocabulary are all colloquial to the characters in the book, so expect a deep Midwest/ Southern slang with a liberal use of swear words sprinkled throughout.

This style of writing can be difficult to read, with context to certain passages being delivered a paragraph or two after the fact and words being thrown around without definition (e.g. coffin nail for cigarette, which is now one of my new favorite terms). Several times I went back and reread an earlier paragraph once I finally understood what was being described. But rather than being a chore to read, the writing style adds another layer of authenticity, like the characters are dictating the novel themselves rather than an omniscient voice narrating from afar.

But more so than the plot or the characters, the descriptions themselves are what take “Donnybrook” to another level. From the brands of beer and cigarettes that his characters consume to every imperfection of the slimiest meth dens and the haggard drug addicts who inhabit them, Bill is relentless in the portraits that he paints, like each disgusting nuance slithers from the page and into your thoughts, and the results are often unsettling. Whole paragraphs will be dedicated to the description of a character, the clothing that they’re wearing, the color of their hair and teeth, and their smell. You will feel like you need to wash your hands after you put the book down, but at the same time, I have rarely had a novel create such a clear and complete picture in my head of its characters and setting.

I loved “Donnybrook,” so much so that I tore through it in just three nights of reading that extended far later into the early morning than they should have. It’s a book that I would recommend whole-heartedly, but with one important disclaimer –

If you’re sensitive to violence, swearing, or just reading about some of the worst people that humanity has to offer, “Donnybrook” is not for you. But if you have the stomach for it, “Donnybrook” will be one of your favorite novels of the year.

Rating: 9.0/10

Donnybrook Cover

Donnybrook: A Novel by Frank Bill/ paperback, 256 pages / FSG Originals, March 5, 2013

(This novel was reviewed with a copy provided by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Cameron Gidari is a freelance writer and the author of Seattle Before8. Follow him on twitter at CGidari)

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