Wed August 25, 2004
Hell at the Breech
...where armed men, living on what was still a kind of a frontier and still chafing from the humiliation of their defeat in the Civil War, set out to assassinate, hang, bushwhack, burn, and torture one another and any women, children, or black families who happen to be in the line of fire.
By Don Noble
It is one of the commonplaces of fiction writing in America that authors are filled with trepidation when writing and publishing their second book, especially if the first one was a success. Critics, it is thought, lie in wait, eager to say: he was a flash in the pan, he can?t sustain the quality, this one isn?t as good as the first.
Tom Franklin?s first volume, the story collection entitled Poachers, was superb, and he won prizes. This book, the novel Hell at the Breech, is even better. On the basis of Poachers, Franklin won an Edgar Award and a Guggenheim. He has been appointed John and Renee Grisham writer-in-residence at Ole Miss, the Tennessee Williams Fellow at Sewanee, and the Philip Roth resident at Bucknell. With this book, he will be in the running for the National Book Award, at least.
Franklin has returned to his home territory in Hell at the Breech, Clark County, Alabama, but he has moved back in time, to the late 1890s, and has written in a genre not always conducive to the finest literary art, the historical novel, but he has pulled it off brilliantly.
In Clark County in the 1890s, there was an actual war, the Mitcham War, which has been chronicled in a book by historian Hardy Jackson, newspaperman Jim Cox, and schoolteacher Joyce Burrage. Franklin bases his novel on that short work of local history and utterly transmutes it through his testosteronic imagination and the alchemy of art.
It begins with an accident. Two teen-age boys, Macky Burke, 15, and William Burke, 18, set out to rob Arch Bedsole, a small country story owner in Mitcham Beat, outside Grove Hill, Alabama. These boys need the money to visit Annie, the local prostitute. There is an accident and Macky shoots Arch. From this small, miserable event comes chaos.
Arch may have been about to run for office to represent the country interests?the small farmers and sharecroppers against the powerful town interests?judge, bank, lawyers, store owners, absentee landlords and holders of mortgages.
The death of Arch is seen as the first shot fired in what erupts into literal class warfare?not the kind where Republicans chide Democrats not to agitate the poor?rather the kind where armed men, living on what was still a kind of a frontier and still chafing from the humiliation of their defeat in the Civil War, set out to assassinate, hang, bushwhack, burn, and torture one another and any women, children, or black families who happen to be in the line of fire.
In Hell at the Breech, Arch?s cousin Tooch Bedsole forms the Hell at the Breech Gang and they begin a bloody guerilla war against those they see as their oppressors. William Alexander Percy in Lanterns on the Levee may have called sharecropping the most equitable system known to man, but few of the white sharecroppers in this novel would agree. They feel like slaves, in bondage and hopeless. Tooch exhorts and terrorizes them to the heights of bloodthirsty cruelty.
Eventually, the townsmen, led by the sensible but middle-aged and tired sheriff, Billy Waite, counterattack, and although they may be pharmacists and clerks, are just as ruthless as the country folk. They employ Ardy Grant, a psychopath, to kill for them, and later, when Ardy is dying, small boys torture him, demonstrating the anti-romanticism of Lord of the Flies, not the childhood innocence of Blake or Wordsworth.
Franklin is near-perfect in this novel, as concerns the world of 1898. There are no false notes in dialogue or detail. This is a page-turner and an action novel of the best kind, and those who think Franklin owes something to Cormac MacCarthy or William Gay may soon drop the notion of influence and simply put Franklin on the same shelf as those writers and William Faulkner.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.