Wherever you see a head, hit it: Donnybrook by Frank Bill

I can change a flat tire and complete an oil change. I can construct and refinish furniture, perform minor electrical work, and grow my own food. I can bait a hook, wield an axe, and I’m proficient in all manner of water activities (swimming, diving, snorkeling, canoeing, kayaking, etc.). I can gut a fish, climb a mountain, and drink you under the table. I draw the line at hunting.

I speak Spanish and Italian (the latter not especially well), adore Kate Spade, and have read the entire works of Jane Austen and Dorothy Parker. I’m able to coherently explain a split infinitive and I cringe when an idiom uses another idiom as a referent. My professional concentration is creating searchable machine readable code records that conform to the current standard ISO 2709:2008. I spent a combined 18 years in educational institutions and have the debt to show for it. I am a vegetarian.

I can assure you that the former is no assurance of my masculinity any more than the latter is indicative of my femininity. However, what I cannot be sure of are the influences my skill sets have on my reading preferences. Frank Bill’s recent article, ‘Is Masculine Writing Dead?’, delves into the idea that our ruggedness and masculinity is defined by our abilities and skills.

Somewhere men’s masculinity got hocked for gadgets, videogames, fast-food drive-thru’s, designer clothing, 10-minute oil changes, and reality TV…I’ve met guys who take great pride in their cars but can’t even change a flat tire, guys who glory in a steak dinner but squirm when I speak of killing a deer. They struggle with baiting a worm onto a fishing hook and can’t stand the site of gutting, scaling, and cleaning fish.

I do not consider myself a particularly rugged, masculine, or feminine person – I consider myself a normal person. If you have time, I suggest reading the article. However, I’m not here to peddle Bill’s article, I’m here to recommend his debut novel Donnybrook. It’s fantastic. The novel fulfills every bit of promise his remarkable set of short stories, Crimes in Southern Indiana, hinted at.

Someone needs to thank the book cover designer…

A donnybrook is a brawl or fracas. The term stems from the belligerent, drunk, violent clientele of Donnybrook Fair in Dublin. The fair was deemed illegal and disbanded in 1855. Happy St. Patrick’s Day to my Irish readers. The Donnybrook of the novel, or ‘brook for short, is a three day tournament for bare-knuckled fighters. Twenty of the region’s best compete until only one is left standing. The fights are held in a wire ring fence in the middle of nowhere Indiana – in a field owned by a madman.

Jarhead and Chainsaw Angus are both desperate for their own reasons. Jarhead, one of the best fighters in Kentucky, has two children to feed and a beautiful, addict wife to support. If he wins the $100,000 grand prize, it could change his life forever. Chainsaw Angus is a legendary fighter and meth cooker with a score to settle – beginning with his sister.

The large grand prize attracts deviants, psychopaths, the desperate, and the vengeful from miles around. This list of attractive attendees draws those who would like to tend to their needs – mainly as suppliers of illegal substances to be used and abused in the name of killing pain and creating courage. The result is, indeed, a fracas.

This intense, perfect piece of literature has a large cast of characters, none of whom you’d want to meet. The subtle, stark beauty of the prose belies the violence it depicts. Although Bill doesn’t mince words, he still manages to create a delicate combination of brutality and pathos. The characters may well be the darkest humanity has to offer, but even among the villains there are shades of gray. It’s fitting, given those are the characteristics that interest the author – specifically ‘what it is to be tough, to be rugged, to be able to take care of your damn self’.

This is not a novel for the faint of heart. Fans of Daniel Woodrell and Donald Ray Pollack need to pick up a copy immediately. It’s gritty and appalling, but infinitely enjoyable. Donnybrook has been called grit-lit and hillbilly noir. While both are fitting descriptions, ultimately what Frank Bill has created is, plainly, very fine fiction. 5/5.

*Sadly, I did not receive a review copy of this. It is, however, the first book of 2013 that I bought on release day.


If you can imagine, given this novel contains a great deal of meth addicts, food references are in limited supply. However, someone does eat a bologna sandwich. As an alternative to that, I’m recommending a Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwich. It’s better than it sounds, though I’d advise skipping the honey.


9 thoughts on “Wherever you see a head, hit it: Donnybrook by Frank Bill

    1. I’ve actually given that topic quite a bit of thought lately. I went through a mini blogging crisis recently, trying to figure out what I wanted to get out of this. I certainly don’t do it to gain stats and followers, I’m reviewing the wrong books for that sort of thing (if I wanted to be popular I’d probably have to break down and read Stephanie Perkins, Veronica Roth, Sarah Dessen, and Gayle Foreman). What I finally decided was that I was going to include why I liked the book and what made it resonate with me, not just technical merits. So that’s what I’ve been attempting to do, I’m glad you like it (and I’m not driving people away with personal overload).

      I do love Kate Spade. The brand embodies many of the things I love (aesthetically speaking): clean lines, polka dots, stripes. Also, they have fantastic sales here in the US (75% off on occasion and free shipping). I also own their manners and style books.


      1. Agree. I try to stay true to my original reason for starting to blog (a reading journal, highlighting why I did/ didn’t like a book and keeping track of favourite quotes). Personally, I find a review more valuable if the reviewer invests some of themselves in it – if you know/trust the reviewer then these bits of themselves speak volumes. If I only wanted a description of a book, I would just read the blurb – ‘reviews’ that are an account of the plot drive me mental.

        *sigh* – wish we had Kate Spade readily available here. Very limited in Aus and Kate Spade don’t ship internationally (why the hell not, I ask…). I have to buy online through Nordstrom. Needless to say when I went to the US 18 months ago, I spent $$$. I love KS because there’s always lots of yellow and fab cocktail rings (which are my second major weakness after handbags).


      2. And the bangles. I’m in love with the yellow stripe idiom bangle, but am having trouble justifying $50 on a bracelet. I will covet it from afar, both preserving my bank account and my sanity.


    1. It’s excellent, I’d highliy recommend it (of course). A few notable titles in the last several years: The Devil All the Time / Donald Ray Pollack, Edge of Dark Water / Joe R. Lansdale, The Death of Sweet Mister / Daniel Woodrell, Big Bad Love / Larry Brown. They are all absolutely fabulous. If you want to go back further, Deliverance by James Dickey is a good read too.


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