A Review Of Frank Bill’s New Novel
Frank Bill might be Indiana’s most prolific novelist, but he doesn’t live in Indy or one of our college towns. Instead, he resides in Corydon. He still works at a factory. And in his latest novel, The Savage, he has perfected his literary formula: a stylized and extraordinarily violent version of the Southern Indiana he knows.
Bill’s previous books—Crimes in Southern Indiana, a story collection that remains his best work, and Donnybrook, a novel—take place in the present-tense Midwest. He might focus on the worst parts, the suffering small towns and murderous men. But he’s trying to capture something true. You can tell the time is our own, although you can also tell that time has passed his places and characters by.
The Savage switches things up. It’s based in Harrison County, where he lives, but much of it occurs in a dystopian future, where the grid has been unplugged and society has been broken. Many Americans, angry at corporate evil and a collapsed economy, have enlisted in militias that specialize in killing and stealing. In this bleak future, a teenaged loner named Van Dorn tries to survive.
Given this plot of populism gone sour, Bill understands readers may find echoes of our current age. “I started writing it around 2012,” he says, “and it’s weird. It’s not that what happened lately influenced the book. It’s that what happened back then has come to a boiling point now.”
The novel also features flashbacks to Van Dorn’s father, along with a few familiar, beat-up faces from Donnybrook. It adds up to Bill’s longest and most ambitious book yet. The Savage should appeal to anyone looking for fiction that’s aggressive and bloody, where every sentence swaggers.
Based on the success of Bill’s first two books, it seems like a lot of people are seeking precisely that. He has traveled to Europe, where French and Norwegian readers adore his fiction and its dark, working-class themes. In America, he has done events on both coasts. At one book festival in California, a woman seemed concerned. Were his books what Indiana was really like? Had he been mistreated as a child? Bill had to smile. “It’s not a nonfiction book, ma’am,” he replied.
Bill already has another (fiction) book slated to appear soon, that one traveling back in time to the 1980s and the fallout from the Vietnam War. And he has sent two more manuscripts to his editors—an incredible output given that he still knocks out 12-hour shifts at the same factory he has worked at for 22 years. But Bill’s biggest challenge may be coming up with new ways to kill and maim his characters. “Hopefully,” he says, “I never run out of ways to describe someone getting shot.”