Donnybrook by Frank Bill (FSG, March 5th, 2013)-Jarhead Earl is desperate. His children, Zeek and Caleb, and their mother, Tammy, don’t have enough to eat, and Jarhead is determined to remedy that. As Donnybrook opens, we join Jarhead as he’s robbing a gun store of the $1000 he needs for his entry fee into Donnybrook (he plans to pay it back, too), a 3-day bare-knuckle fighting tournament in the backwoods of southern Indiana with a huge cash prize for the man that comes out on top. Jarhead takes no more than he needs, and flees. He’s good with his fists, and figures he has a better than average shot at the big prize. His problem is getting there, and avoiding the riff raff that seems to constantly get in his way. He eventually hitches a ride with a man named Tig who makes money siphoning gas and selling it, and they eventually hook up with his cousin, Alonzo Conway, who runs underage girls and guns. Jarhead is desperate, yes, but this is most definitely not his scene, and little does he know, all hell is about to break loose.
Meanwhile, Chainsaw Angus, so nicknamed because of a chainsaw accident that ruined his face and one eye, and his sister Liz are on the warpath. They’ve been cooking meth, and the constant moving around has taken a toll. The fact that they’re both raging psychopaths is their biggest problem though. Murder doesn’t faze them in the least, and Liz’s growing hatred for her brother, and her desire to keep all the spoils to herself, is causing quite a rift in their operation. Eventually they murder a man that owes a big dept, and the moneylender, Mr. Zhong, has no problem releasing his rather unusual collection man, Fu, on the couple in order to collect what’s owed.
It also happens that the law is on Jarhead’s trail, and the carnage that Angus and Liz are leaving in their considerable wake makes it quite obvious that the law has a huge problem on their hands. All Jarhead knows is he must get to the Donnybrook at all costs, Angus must get Liz, who’s on her way to the Donnybrook with the man she now runs with, Fu is on the trail of Angus and Liz, and a lawman is now out for personal vengeance. You can see where this is going, right? This is sort of like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World on meth. Lots and lots of meth. I’ll be honest, I got great pleasure when the bad guys got knocked around, even if it was by other bad guys, because they’re so awful. However, you may be surprised to find out that even in the midst of a story that takes place in the middle of crushing poverty, job loss (and subsequent loss of dignity in the inability to feed your own family), loose morals (to put it mildly), all manner of depravity and abuse, and sticky, cloying heat that just won’t quit, Frank Bill managed to mix in humor (of the very darkest kind), and even hope. Jarhead and his little family is the beacon of light in all of this unrelenting darkness. Through all of this mess, you know that Tammy and the kids are waiting for him to come home, to make everything ok, at least for a little while, and the author makes it very clear that Jarhead is destined for greater things. The Donnybrook became much more than a backwoods brawl, at least for me. It became a castle siege, with the fate of an evil king at stake, and unimaginable repercussions. I couldn’t help but think of Jarhead as the white knight in this one, even if his armor is a bit tarnished around the edges. This compact little book, much like some of its characters, is more than it seems on the surface, and I found myself thinking about it long after I read the last page.
Take a handful of firecrackers, drop them into a blender along with gunpowder, double crosses, flying fists, mountains of meth, a big pile of money, a boatload of whiskey, and dogs with a taste for human flesh, and you have the culmination of this spectacular book. My only complaint is the ending came way too quickly for me.