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March 22, 2013

Book Notes - Frank Bill "Donnybrook"


In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Frank Bill's debut novel Donnybrook is a gritty portrait of the underbelly of middle America, where glory and profit are painted with blood and drugs.

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is Frank Bill's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, Donnybrook:

Everything started with a fire. Flames ignited the surrounding counties of the small town I call home. Farmhouses, rental properties and trailers. One in particular involved a friend I grew up with. He'd been cooking crank. It off gassed and ignited. He saved his girlfriend and her kids, this is years after he lost his wife and a good factory job to his addiction.

The fire charcoaled his legs. He'd no insurance. Stayed in a nursing home, then before being released to police custody, he escaped and was on the run.

That was one of the many seeds planted in truth for creating the characters in Donnybrook. On down the road, I'd have a phone conversation with an ex-anhydrous-dope cook and he offered his family's recipe. Life experience, childhood fascinations, growing up on a farm, guns, hunting and my own view on bare-knuckled struggle followed.

I penned the first draft of Donnybrook. The tunes that I listened to, some were written into the story as a soundtrack or a setting for the mood, others were not.

Musicians reflected my sense of place, memories that I'd draw from and turn upside down, scene-set-up and my anger for the abandoned class of men and women who struggled and slaved from day to day, like myself, where sometimes a job punching a clock is like entering a prison for eight to twelve hours a day. I wanted to hit on what was being harvested or sacrificed from the working, mainly jobs and dignity. But also, what was filling their downtime: meth, booze, sex, gambling, violence and pugilism. I wanted to shine a bright light on the rubbed-raw-lives that got by on a different skill set. People that don't get written about because of the lower rungs they stomp through unless of course they leave a body behind and make the evening news.

When penning the tale of a young man using his fists to carve a possible future for his girl and his kids, there wasn't one CD or album that became a soundtrack for my words. There were many, as I drove to and from work every day and cruised the country roads on my off days, stood in line at Wal-Mart or sat in a parking lot outside of a grocery or gas station, I jotted down images, created characters and actions, and flipped through the pages of my life.

Here's my playlist:

That rhythm I write with in Donnybrook comes from the adrenaline I want in my prose where the reader feels his/her eyes are being fisted and their throats being are clamped, hence the ballistic characters within Donnybrook and my influence from Slipknot and their tune "The Blister Exists." With lyrics like – chemical burns and the animalistic- I'm just another pseudo-statistic- all you wanna do is ball up your fists and join in, everything about this band emits testosterone, masculinity, and rage.

The fight scenes in Donnybrook had to be realistic, meaning attention to details: footing, hips, how an attack is thrown and how the body reacts to all of this. But also, how fighters size people up. In a sense they're like predators. The host and creator of The Donnybrook had to be a merciless I-take-no-shit male. He had to show dominance over others, regardless of gender, which is what draws men and women to Bellmont McGill. The song, "Walk" by Pantera, marches with the same manly angst as Bellmont with lines like– can't you see I'm easily bothered by persistence-one step from lashing out at you-you want to get under my skin- is there no standard anymore?- what it takes- who I am- where I've been- belong- you can't be something you're not- McGill is like a backwoods Phil Anselmo, Pantera's lead singer, he's a tatted up punk at times, but a man not to be crossed or you'll get beat down as some men and women do out on his 1000 acre plot or maybe worse.

There was something about Purcell, the prophet from Donnybrook, laying about his yard, between two trees in his hammock, and the words of Ray Wylie Hubbard showering the visions of Chainsaw Angus and Jarhead Earl, two men coming from ruin and decay but somehow meshing on down the road. Ray Wylie writes songs with a gothic and biblical sense of place and "The Ballad of the Crimson Kings" summed up what Purcell was dealing with at that moment, as Ray sings about men who are condemned by a purpose, much like the men in Purcell's visions.

Writing a scene that opens with a man bound and bleeding, the man being Eldon McClanahan, with a tune by Hank Williams Sr. blaring from a kitchen radio, "My Buckets Got a Hole in It," came to me immediately. The metaphor being a hole-worn-bucket, something that is deemed useless by a country boy cause he can't carry anything in it. But creating this vision of Eldon in my mind, he's hearing this tune not realizing he's been played, or rather realizing too late, that his time is zero while this chaos is building in front of him with a not so comforting outcome, for me he was that bucket and for him it was way too late.

On the page, words must have a pulse and a rhythm that can be felt like a good foot stomping blues song, especially after a character like Jarhead Earl, robs a gun shop, beats a cop down and needs to abandon his vehicle on a country back road. When Tig Stanley pulls up, the guitar picking of Seasick Steve and his gritty-street-worn-vocals of "It's All Good" are filling the truck's interior. The lyrics – me and money don't see eye to eye – ain't that I wouldn't mind some – it's just that I don't believe I gonna see some before I die – and everybody is always tellin' me how great I am – Though I didn't write them into the story, Seasick's words are almost prophetic for Jarhead Earl, a broke but unbeaten fighter who is in a pinch and on the run.

Entering a bar in a working class community, its full of men and women, friends and neighbors who follow the bible, have fought in wars, and rent their body's for tender. The red, white and blue still mean something to them. When Liz walks into the Leavenworth Tavern, John Prine's "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore" caught the sense of these people who soak their souls and share conversations for everything that has been lost along the way to what they once thought to be the American dream but is anything but that now.

So much of setting a scene is about mood or emotion. When Chainsaw Angus sits at the Leavenworth Tavern's bar, makes eye contact with Poe the bartender, they exchange words and there's an immediate tension between the two that comes down to a choice, get beat or don't get beat. But the exchange is smooth. Mike Cooley, one of the singer/songwriters from the Drive By Truckers, is just as smooth with his guitar and voice, and that smoothness kept drumming in my mind with "Three Dimes Down," emitting the right sentiments, giving this anxiety to the surrounding situation and atmosphere of offering the right answer or the wrong answer.

One of the biggest influences from a rock-music perspective, especially the further south one goes, is Lynyrd Skynyrd. Though my appreciation for them didn't come till I'd hit my mid-twenties and understood what they'd done as musicians. For me, they infused a garage-jam-country style mixed with a taste of delta blues and even big band appeal at times with great storytelling. Two of their tunes, "The Ballad of Curtis Loew" and "Call Me the Breeze" play to the backdrop of the chemistry I was braiding between two self-centered characters that meet in the Leavenworth Tavern. "Curtis Loew" tells the simple story of a drunken bluesman, as Liz and Ned get associated with one another over beers. Then a deal transpires. The song ends. "Call Me the Breeze" begins with Ned laying a wad of bills down on the bar. The lyrics- call me the breeze - I keep blowin' down the road- ain't no change in the weather – ain't no changes in me- and I ain't hidin' from nobody and ain't nobody hidin' from me – offer a glimpse on how Ned is feeling at that moment, jittery for dope but carefree just before he and Liz head down a road of backstabbing, bloodletting and burnt bridges.

"Been Down Too Long" by Scott H. Biram, is an anthem for the struggling that is Johnny Jarhead Earl. A man raised within the bible belt of south-eastern-Kentucky, where I traveled off and on for a number years to study Chinese martial arts in the hills. Scott's words are rustic, lyrical and heartfelt as he sings- all I want in this creation is a good lovin' woman and a long vacation- I been comin' so strong I been down too long- music doesn't get any better than Biram's, who blends old blues, roots music and even his own style of garage-metal picking on his steel guitar.

Growing up my cousin and I found this book in K-Mart about Ed Gein, a Wisconsin serial killer who dug up the dead. Inside the book was a pic of a woman strung up and gutted like a deer. From the ages of 15 or 16 we were fascinated with this simple man. "Dead Skin Mask," a jarring song by Slayer that comes on with a slow-methodic-shred and pound of guitar and base, offers visceral lyrics that sketch out Gein's misdeeds. The tune was fuel to my fascination with this murderer and helped unearth the creation of Gravel, a detached, marred man-boy left behind after a brutal execution of his family, he is the unknown eyes upon the farm where he lives in a cave and survives from the land with the skills taught to him by his family.

Frank Bill and Donnybrook links:

the author's blog

PopMatters review
Publishers Weekly review
Revolver review

The Awl interview with the author
CBS News interview with the author
The Daily Beast contributions by the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Crimes in Southern Indiana
LitReactor interview with the author
My Bookish Ways interview with the author
Oxford American interview with the author
WFPL profile of the author
Writer's Digest interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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