Fresh Meat: Donnybrook by Frank Bill

Donnybrook by Frank BillDonnybrook by Frank Bill is a rural noir novel of drugs and violence (available March 5, 2013).

The Donnybrook is a three-day bare-knuckle tournament held on a thousand-acre plot out in the sticks of southern Indiana. Twenty fighters. One wire-fence ring. Fight until only one man is left standing while a rowdy festival of onlookers—drunk and high on whatever’s on offer—bet on the fighters.

 Jarhead is a desperate man who’d do just about anything to feed his children. He’s also the toughest fighter in southeastern Kentucky, and he’s convinced that his ticket to a better life is one last fight with a cash prize so big it’ll solve all his problems.

$h!+ happens. If even the punctuation-spelled version kinks your neck, take that as your guide that the novel under discussion here won’t be your cuppa.

Still reading? Okay, let me share that in Donnybrook, bona fide, filthy Shit Happens and keeps happening relentlessly, from the opening page through the finale, by which time countless skulls crack, bullets perforate limbs and organs, peddlers pimp underage flesh, dimwits are humiliated, much meth disappears into raggedy faces, nauseating sex is perpetrated between gross-ass freaks, mildew blooms, crooks betray, kindness is punished, bowels void, and blood spatters as malfeasants of every degree of dark-heartedness kill and get killed.

Among a truly motley crew of the corrupt, damaged, and stupid, “Jarhead” Jimmy Earl serves as a hero, because he doesn’t necessarily murder everyone who opposes him and because the addict in his life has genuine pain for which she’s hooked on Oxy. But like the rest of the monsters, he’s got needs and desires, and perhaps one holy gift with which to earn his salvation. But first, he has to steal enough for Donnybrook’s thousand-dollar entry fee and get away:

Red and blue lights lit up the rear window of the primered Ford Galaxy…

Jarhead’d learned about Donnybrook two nights ago, after he’d beaten Combine Elder into twelve unknown shades of purple. Afterward, Combine had smirked at the unblemished rawhide outline and wheat-tinted hair of Jarhead Earl, his razor-tight arms clawed by black and red amateur tattoos hanging by his sides…

Combine told Jarhead that Donnybrook was was a three-day bare-knuckles tournament, held once a year every August. Run by the sadistic and rich-as-fuck Belmont McGill on a thousand acre plot out in the sticks. Twenty fighters entered a fence-wire ring. Fought till one man was left standing. Hordes of onlookers—men and women who used drugs and booze, wagered and grilled food—watched the fighting. Two fights Friday. Four Saturday. The six winners fought Sunday for one hundred grand.

The two jobs Jarhead worked, towing for a junkyard during the day then flipping burgers and waffles two or three nights a week, hardly provided enough cash to feed and clothe his two smiling-eyed progeny. Boys created with the comeliest female in the Kentucky hills, Tammy Charles.

In between his jobs he jogged through the Kentucky mining hills that gave his stepfather black lung and his mother gun-powder suicide. He pounded on the the homemade heavy bag that hung from a tree in front of his trailer till his hands burned red. Training for his next bare-knuckle payday out in an abandoned barn or tavern parking lot. Farmers. Miners. Loggers. Drunks. Wagering on another man’s will…

The cruiser’s door opened. The outline of the county cop approached. Jarhead had his window rolled down. Watched the shadow trail toward his car in the rearview. The officer stopped at his window.

Should I open the door, punch him in the throat, his temple?

The trip is further complicated by his criss-crossing paths with other dangerous people, some fighters, many of whom are chasing a giant batch of high-value meth and alternately robbing and savaging each other for it. Other major actors include legendary fighter Chainsaw Angus, a cold and deadly meth cook whose face was scarred in a logging accident (guess how). There’s also Fu, an enforcer hired to recoup an alcoholic pharmacist’s gambling debts, another deadly fighter whose actupuncture skills are used more often for sadism than therapy. There’s Liz, a wickedly hot-bodied and permanently-horny psycho who catalogs every insult for later revenge. Ned is a scaly-headed brawler and skirt-sniffer, leathered from being beat up, who thinks he has a last Donnybrook victory in him. (Of the grasping and even pervier brothers Elbow and Dodge, I can’t write more without wanting to boil my keyboard.) There are bent lawmen, greedy barkeeps, and plenty of incompetents overestimating their chances against gifted warriors who can, conversely, recognize each other at distance from their posture and carriage alone. Purcell, an old man with the power of visions, is convinced that all this local tumult and close-range violence portends a much larger, even divine purpose. 

The damn few people with respectable, or at least sympathetic, intentions are forced to inflict damage, too, because the denizens of their world are so reactively combative. That’s probably because author Frank Bill so obviously enjoys choreographing their impulse control failures:

[Deputy Sheriff] Whalen had a cockfight in his chest and told her, “Lady, shut your mouth! Sir, step away from the fucking stove!”

In his Darth Vader tone, the man said, “Don’t talk that way to my wife. Got kids in the house.”

Losing his patience, Whalen said, “Sir—”

Before Whalen could react, the female grabbed at the kitchen counter. Turned. Lunged Lizzy Borden-style at him. Whalen raised his left arm to block the oncoming blur. Took a gash from the blade of a butcher knife. Yelled, “Shit!”

He hooked his left hand around the woman’s wrist. Kept the knife controlled. Pounded the butt of his Glock down onto her forehead. She dropped to her knees along with the knife. Whalen released her wrist. The woman screamed “You fuck!”

Quivering like the adrenaline cooking on the stove, the man rushed Whalen. Whalen fired a round into the man’s right thigh. The female hollered, “No!” The man fell forward onto Whalen. From the car seat in the living room the kids started barking like hounds on a coon trail…

I’ve seen perhaps every lame-ass and amazing action flick set around a death match, so my teeth were filed to points in anticipation of the competition. However, as much as this novel’s characters love to battle, the major brawling—which is nonstop, creative, and abundant—is spent fighting on the way to the actual Donnybrook. In fact, so much of the novel was spent in road tripping, double-crossing, and truly subpar wound care that I was sometimes reminded as much of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World as Enter the Dragon. I almost feared the final match might be a MacGuffin occurring in some mythical Xanadu the characters would never survive to reach. But not to worry, sports fans. Somehow, there’s plenty of large-scale crazy held back like slavering flesh-hungry beasts in preparation for that bloody sunset.

Things that happen in Donnybrook are terrible, but also terribly funny, provided your sense of humor runs as pitch-black as grave dirt. Characters will suffer well-earned payback, though (relative) innocents will also get churned to bits in the karmic propwash. If by the end, some folks are swallowed whole, the overall crap stew that keeps bubbling up these noxious specimens of humanity hasn’t changed much—at least not yet, and good thing, too, since there are intimations from the prophet Purcell of a bigger story yet to unfold.

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Despite Clare Toohey’s checkered past in art and music, she gives store-bought greeting cards and plays the ukulele poorly. As a writer, she as­pires to genre hack-dom, and as a fan, appreciates both the trashy and inventive. She’s the site editor and manager of, Tweeting @clare2e and blogging more foolishness at

See all of Clare Toohey’s posts at Criminal Element.


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