FOLKS FORGED IN THE FIRE: A REVIEW OF FRANK BILL'S BACK TO THE DIRT
When it comes to broken people plagued by violence, Frank Bill is a master of rural crime fiction. His characters are often trapped by an upbringing, time, and place that molds them into people with little ways to express themselves other than aggression. He understands them so well that they are more than colorful animals or products of their society. In fact, his latest, Back To The Dirt, is Bill at his most humanist.
At the center of this story set in the early 2000s is a relationship between Miles Knox and Shelby Cutchen, two damaged people finding a fragile peace within one another. MIles, a Vietnam vet, is tormented with rage issues connected to both PTSD and the steroids he's become hooked on. The much younger Shelby works as a stripper, struggling to put her father's abuse behind her as she takes care of her oxy addicted twin brother, Wiley,
Wiley goes on the run when two oxy dealers turn up murdered. Nataniel, the brother of one and an ex cop, goes after him. Nathaniel's former job has filled him with contempt and malice toward his community and the killing has put him over a killing edge. He sets out for Wiley, who has grabbed Shelby, practically kidnapping her.
MIles goes looking for her, crossing paths with Nathaniel's hunt. Unfortunately, the vet has taken LSD, screwing with his PTSD. Events and landscapes from late sixties Vietnam pop up out of along the midwest as the two travel on their brutal trail. In the meantime Shelby has to confront her father and crazed brother.
Frank Bill carries a gift of using the right amount of pulp style in his writing. His books move in a tight, cantering momentum. The fight scenes, which there are plenty, are described in a detailed blow by blow manner, with their effects conveyed with sharp precision. He grounds the action in an Americana lyricism, both hard and poetic, and fully realized characters.
The book delivers a meditation on pain with people afflicted with it, doing the afflicting or both. Demons plague everyone as they flail for grace. Bill shows how this cycle can scorch an often ignored and untreated community.
Back To The Dirt refuses to cater to the squeamish. His midwest is violent and bleak, populated by folks vibrating with trama. His writing finds humanity, love, and understanding through the harshness. All of it hard won by the survivors and possibly fleeting. Frank Bill gets to the people as well as the punching.