(Reviewed by Tony Ross NOV 6, 2007)I'd never come across Franklin before, but this Southern Gothic retelling of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is so distinctive that I'm curious to see what the rest of his writing is like. Although ostensibly set in 1911 somewhere in southern Alabama, it has a very hazy quality to it that suggests it could be anywhere in the deep south or southwest, any time between 1870-1900. The story proceeds along two tracks: one follows a terrifying man called Smonk, and the other follows a 15-year-old prostitute named Evavangeline.
We meet Smonk at a trial convened by the men of Old Texas, where he is accused of murder after his yearlong terrorizing of their town. Unfortunately for them, the dirty, limping, deformed, consumptive, syphilitic, hellraiser smells a setup, and the scene quite literally explodes in an orgy of bloodletting which manage to evoke both the brutality and realism of Peckinpah and the bizarre cartoonishness of Tarantino all at the same time. Smonk makes his escape and begins a long game of cat-and-mouse with the town's only two male survivors. Meanwhile, we meet Evavangeline as she flees in flagrante from a strange roving vigilante group who is chasing her for being a sodomite (her young form was apparently mistaken for that of a boy's). Her journey takes her through the drought-ridden Gulf Coast and toward Old Texas. Along the way, she proves just as deadly as Smonk, leaving a trail of gruesomely dispatched corpses behind her.
As we learn about both characters' pasts, we also learn about their pursuers. William McKissick is Smonk's former partner, now turned semi-honest lawman. Under the belief Smonk killed his boy, McKissick conducts his hunt with blood oozing out of an untended belly wound and Smonk's glass eye between his cheek and gum. Evavangeline is chased by a posse of "Christian Deputies" led by a northern fop with no control whatsoever over his band of rascals. The action takes place across a surreal barren landscape of dead sugarcane and rabies-infected dogs and rats. Ultimately, everything leads back to Old Texas, a town which mysteriously has no children. As with many a horror movie, the town's long-held horrifying secret is finally revealed as the karmic justification for all the killings, eviscerations, rapes, and ultraviolence over the preceding pages.
This is an impossible book to pigeonhole. Franklin's Old Testament update is incredibly dark, gruesome, and violent (a note of warning, incest crops up more than once). And at the same time, it's so over-the-top that it can be awfully funny at times. Franklin's crafted a richly distinctive dialect and cadence for his characters' dialogue that helps in creating a unique sense of place. The one downside is that it's not set off like normal dialogue, which can make it a little hard to follow at times. I've definitely not read another book like this all year, but one like this is probably all I can handle. Highly recommended, but only for those with strong stomachs.
- Amazon readers rating: from 39 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Smonk at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Poachers: Stories (1999)
- Hell at the Breach (2003)
- Smonk (2006)
- Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (2010)
- The Tilted World (October 2013) (with Beth Ann Fennelly)
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- Mississippi Writers on Tom Franklin
- Southern Literary Review interview with Tom Franklin
- Reading Guide for Hell at the Breach
- Front Porch review of and interview for Smonk
- Literatilluminations review of Smonk
- Southern Literary review of Smonk
- Saddlebums Western Review of Smonk
- Reading Guide for Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
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About the Author:
Tom Franklin was born (1963) and raised in Dickinson, Alabama a small town in southwest Clarke County. He began writing by creating his own comic books and writing stories inspired by the Tarzan and Conan the Barbarian books. His family moved to Mobile after he graduated from high school. He earned his B.A. in English from University of South Alabama in Mobile. While attending college, he worked nights at various places. He was employed as a heavy equipment operator at a sandblasting grit factory, a construction inspector in a chemical plant, a clerk at a hospital morgue, and he also worked at hazardous waste clean-up sites. After graduating from the University of South Alabama, Franklin earned his MFA in fiction at the University of Arkansas in 1998. He taught briefly at the University of South Alabama.
He has been published in The Black Warrior Review, The Southern Review, and The Oxford American, among others. His stories have been included in Best American Mystery Stories of the Century, New Stories from The South, 1999 and Stories from the Blue Moon Café.
Franklin has held the Philip Roth Residency in Creative Writing at Bucknell University and has been Writer-in-Residence at Knox College, the John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence at University of Mississippi, and the Tennessee Williams Fellow at University of the South. Franklin has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a residency at the MacDowell Colony. Currently, he is Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi. Franklin is married to the poet Beth Ann Fennelly and lives with his family in Oxford, Miss.