Imagine the full spectrum of crime, mystery and thriller stories. Over on the left you’d slot tidy Miss Marple and the cosies. But hang onto your hat now as we veer way off to the right where, literally at the other end of that spectrum, you’ll find Frank Bill’s crime tale, Back to the Dirt. Reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or Donald Ray Pollock’s The Heavenly Table, this is a book that gives no quarter to sentiment. No pussy-footing here.
The main character, Miles Knox, is a Vietnam War veteran who saw some horrible things perpetrated there, and not just by the enemy. These episodes and his dead comrades haunt him and, when he’s under stress, his experiences come roaring back into his brain in sounds, smells and sensations.
There’s a lot he could do to get the past under better control, and he’s tried. He’s gone the counselling route, with little apparent success. These days, the only thing that relieves the stress is pumping iron, but he’s not so young anymore and to keep up that regimen he has to jack himself full of steroids, which take their own toll. He’s somewhat more responsible than a loose cannon, at least when his short fuse isn’t lit, but get him angry and pay the price.
Also, taking a couple of tabs of LSD on the night he and a friend go in pursuit of a killer probably isn’t the best decision he’s ever made.
On an ordinary day in his rural Indiana homestead, he goes to work in a factory, he meets his decades-younger girlfriend Shelby, a stripper in a local bar, he has some drinks and some steaks, and he gets on with it. It’s precarious, but it’s doable, until some bad stuff starts to happen.
His friend Nathaniel, a former policeman, shows up with nephew Shadrach in tow. Shadrach, who’s probably about eight years old, just saw his parents murdered. They were big-time drug dealers but when the cops arrive the trailer is devoid of both drugs and money. Uncle Nathaniel is now Shadrach’s guardian.
Nathaniel wants to probe the local drug ecosystem to identify and pursue the killer, whom Shad will recognise. He takes Miles with him on a long night of pursuit and frustration, not fully appreciating at first how compromised the mental state of his companion really is. Whatever bad stuff has happened that day, it’s only going to get worse.
Author Frank Bill paints a bleak picture of rural America, swamped with opioids, fully stocked with guns, and overtaken by despair. Notably, the same theme is found in Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead, winner of the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. An author has to find a way into such a morass of bad decisions and bad drugs, and she chose Dickens’s David Copperfield for inspiration; Frank Bill chose the Vietnam War and PTSD. It’s a world where there are no easy answers. If you don’t live in it, it’s easier to ignore than think about, but if you do live in it, there’s almost no escape.
I wouldn’t recommend Back to the Dirt to the faint-hearted or easily offended, but if you are up for a bracing look at a segment of society you don’t often see described so unflinchingly, this will do it.
It takes a while to get into the rhythm of Bill’s writing. Characters’ thoughts and dialogue are not just phonetic, we see how the characters perceive the words. So there are errors like ‘rest’ instead of ‘wrest,’ ‘omission of guilt’ instead of ‘admission,’ and so on. And their thoughts and speech are not necessarily grammatical. But you’ll soon get into it and the technique adds considerable colour to the text.
Just when you think there should be an end to the legacy of Vietnam – a war that ended for the politicians some 45 years ago – you find out that for many of the men who fought there, it remains a daily reality.
Try Dust off the Bones by Paul Howarth, or see Frank Bill’s 2011 short story collection Crimes in Southern Indiana, which launched his career.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars