Sinners of Sanction County by Charles Dodd White (Bottom Dog Press, 2011)
Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011)
There's good reason to suspect that two short story collections nestled in Appalachia and rural Southern Indiana and written by male thirty-somethings will surely include plenty of spilt bourbon, calloused fists cracking bloodied skulls, lustful and quick sex, guns within arm's reach, and enough guilt and rage to fuel many haunted lifetimes. Charles Dodd White's Sinners of Sanction County and Frank Bill's Crimes in Southern Indiana could be literary neighbors, but it's doubtful these characters would ever cross paths in a real or imagined life. White's narrators have largely taken refuge from the bitter accolades of human existence, choosing instead to reside on the periphery of society, finding wonderment and exaltation in nature after repeated disappointments by family, friends, and lovers. Whereas Bill sucker-punches his characters and drowns them in hell-bent fury and irreparable sadness, those lucky enough to dodge fatal consequences always get back up and come back for more.
Frank Bill begins his collection in fifth gear, roaring. The first story, "Hill Clan Cross," feels like you've been dropped into the middle of an early Quentin Tarantino film. A loaded-gun robbery ensues and everybody's the bad guy, and you're hoping a stray bullet isn't misfired because, as a reader, you fear for your own safety. The reader doesn't know who to trust or sympathize with and you realize Bill has set the tone early: There will be no heroes, and forget about personal epiphanies, because the only true transcendence occurs at the moment of death.
Once the smoke clears, Bill proves himself equally capable of portraying individual sorrows, as masterfully demonstrated in the unsentimental deterioration of a war veteran in "The Need." Bill's prose is merciless. He provokes all of the senses, never holding back, but always precise in knowing the moment when enough is enough. Several of the stories are presented almost as brief vignettes, creating unforgettable scenes lit with a purposely short fuse, beginning the countdown from the first sparked sentence. Others are more fully developed, frequently delving into the circumstances of murder, which always seem to originate from self-preservation, even if the danger isn't imminent, as in "Beautiful Even in Death":
He kicked her balance from beneath her. Guided her under the current and straddled her chest. Christi's legs splashed. Bishop's hands swallowed her clawing hands, which had sorted mail from eight to five Monday through Friday at the post office for twenty years. Pinned them to her throat. Watched bubbles explode into lost breath beneath the cold water, telling himself he'd no other choice, she wouldn't listen.
"True, Hawkins buried his son more than once that summer," begins "Hawkins' Boy," the lead story in Sins of Sanction County. "Buried" is the key foreshadowing in this first line because the subsequent stories are full of attempts to bury the past and the dead and, sometimes, entomb the living. White renders stories that burrow deep to the pit of private pain, revealing an ever-burning blaze too powerful to battle that we should quietly let engulf us, and learn to suffer the eventual scarring.
Although White's sensibilities will surely evoke similarities to fellow Southern writers as Ron Rash and William Gay, I felt his kinship more in line with Walt Whitman, who, like White, extoled in the ecstatic naturalism of the world, supplanting the inherent foibles of human nature with the disinterested glory of everlasting nature as elicited in this passage from "Hawkin's Boy":
He eased himself onto the aluminum bleacher, the seat crying softly; this meant nothing to him amid the babble of all that remembered noise. So prevalent and easeful. So unmourned. The night's steady engine hummed, and he grew attentive. No longer the fear of others, just this patch of quiet world and time spreading inside him like music. What way was there to capture this sound alone?
The strong thematic use of nature does not mean White skimps on introspection, but maybe the routine details are not nearly as important as recognizing our inability to penetrate the subtle gulfs that restrict our understanding, as he stunningly expresses in the final paragraph from his story "Confederates:"
He may have been one of the ones that killed that trooper out of Greenville, but there's no telling, not with the crossfire the newspapers described. But what I keep wanting know is what Charlie was thinking while he was pinned there in that shack, the rounds ticking off the aluminum sides. What dream of freedom made him and those like him so different from all the rest of us?
The stylistic differences make for two very complementary books. White's richly poetic language and plodding tone automatically invoke a narrative downshift, as we understand that these stories are to be savored slowly. And while you won't help it but to read Bill rapidly because his sentences beg you to, I suggest that you force yourself to slow down, and revel in both of these dangerous portrayals of worlds that have more in common with our own lives than we probably care to admit, and which both share a common ancestor in Walt Whitman, who, in "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" writes what could serve as a fitting epigraph for either of these extraordinary collections:
In the swamp in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.
Solitary the thrush,
The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song. Song of the bleeding throat,
Death's outlet song of life, (for well dear brother I know, If thous wast not granted to sing thou would'st surely die.)