Last month I read the strangest book: Frank Bill’s novel Donnybrook, which follows a bunch of crusty backwoods reprobates on their way to the titular event, a sort of Hunger Games-style throw-down in southern Indiana. Not that long to begin with, Donnybrook would’ve been shorter but for the characters needing to stop every few minutes for a scene of brutal, disgusting, almost comically graphic violence, out of which one or two people would emerge to dust off, pop an eye back in its socket, smoke an unfiltered cigarette, and sally forth.
The book came to seem, like some good art and a lot of bad, as if it was exploring violence for its own sake: testing the author’s talents as surely as the reader’s patience. It presented a question, or a challenge: What would a bunch of worst impulses look like if they were cast in narrative form? Is there any reason to force a story on such an awful scene?
Likewise, Chicagoans struggle to force a story on—to make sense of—the increase in violence we’re seeing. And it cropped up in enough recent books that we wondered if there wasn’t something to be learned by reading a few of them against each other, keeping in mind how many different expressions of violence—racial, gendered, economic, etc—people experience. Here we look at Louise Erdrich’s latest, about an attack on a Native American woman; an account of a road trip by Dan Baum, seeking out “gun guys”; fantastical portrayals of the pain of memory by Karen Russell; and David McConnell’s reporting on the differences between media portrayals of male-on-male violence and the actual men behind it.
We end with a conversation between authors who’ve sought to complexify the discourse about gang violence: Reader editor Mara Shalhoup (BMF: The Rise and Fall of Big Meech and the Black Mafia Family) and Natalie Moore and Lance Williams (The Almighty Black P Stone Nation). There may or may not be any lessons here, but hopefully you’ll find a little illumination. —Sam Worley