Put in the right circumstances, any human will fight. He’ll fight hard, he’ll fight dirty, and he’ll fight in ways that result in other humans resembling poorly-made salsa. Historically, the situations that cause this brutality were based on defending something important—defending one’s country, one’s way of life, one’s family, one’s honor. In the sick and heartless landscape of modern America, though, humanity fights for the sake of fighting, weaned on a diet of agony their whole lives. That is the backbone of Donnybrook, the debut novel by master of rural noir Frank Bill—that we live in a world where aggression is the only truth.
To put it succinctly, Donnybrook tells the story of multiple outlaws and tough guys making their way through the American Midwest to reach the Donnybrook, a three-day bare-knuckle boxing tournament with a hefty cash prize. To give you a taste of the novel’s true colors, here are a few snapshots: a sexual deviant is shot up and coated with honey to be eaten by insects. A woman who looks like pure hunger cooks meth with her cut-up brother, Chainsaw Angus. Two men are forced to fight each other in a cage match while fending off bloodthirsty hounds. Boiling industrial chemicals are flung into a police officer’s face, deforming him for life. A man, having not succumbed to a Chinese assassin’s needle torture, has the truth scorched out of him with a cattle rod. At times, the prose can seem a little excessive and dry—Bill’s descriptions of brawls can sometimes read like stereo instructions to a massacre, insert piece A into slot B and he’ll scream like a pig—but overall, this Pantera-flavored rag is endlessly entertaining, and goes down as hard and fast as a double shot of scotch and blood (teeth to garnish). In the world of faces punched, crank snorted, guts shot, and whiskey pounded, Frank Bill is king, and Donnybrook sets him up as the poet laureate of the apocalypse. Steeped in nonstop action, dark human need, and the coming end of civility in America, this novel is a stunning debut from an author more than willing to hold society still while it stares in the mirror.