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Mon January 1, 2007
Smonk reminds one of Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy, in which there seems to be a homicide on every page. The strongest element of Tom Franklin's new novel, Smonk, is character. You have absolutely never seen people like this before.
By Don Noble
The strongest element of Tom Franklin's new novel, Smonk, is character. You have absolutely never seen people like this before. They are not exactly realistic or believable, but they are fascinating. If they lived in our world, you could not take your eyes off of them, and that would be a good plan, because these characters are the most amoral, violent, bloodthirsty, murderous creatures I have come upon in a long while. Smonk reminds one of Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy, in which there seems to be a homicide on every page.
The protagonist of this bloodfest is E. O. (Eugene Oregon) Smonk. Smonk is an obscene collection of weapons and ailments. Five feet and one quarter inch tall, Smonk has an "immense dwarf shape," "hands wide as shovels," "a bushel basket of a head," a big goiter and tiny legs. "His left eye was gone . . . replaced by a white glass ball two sizes small . . . . He had gout, he had the clap, bloodsugar, neuralgia and ague. Malaria. The silk handkerchief balled in his pants pocket was blooded from the advanced consumption" he had.
But Smonk, diseased as he is, seems not exactly mortal. Shoot, stab, or poison him as you will, he cannot be killed. Franklin is working here to create a myth, a character of legend, and to some extent, he succeeds.
Also starring in this phantasmagoria is Evavangeline. A scrawny fifteen-year-old girl, filthy with chopped-off hair, she is a professional prostitute but is often taken for a sodomite, since half the people she meets think she is a boy.
Evavangeline is, like Smonk, a stone killer who leaves many of her clients dead. After several murders in Shreveport, she flees to Mobile, then up the Tombigbee to McIntosh, and then, finally, to the site of the novel's opening and closing scenes, Old Texas, Alabama, a fictional town in Clark County near the real Jackson, Alabama.
Evavangeline is being pursued by Phail Walton, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the self-appointed Captain of the Christian Deputies, a little posse of paid puritans he has assembled. Walton dresses his troop in duster coats, driving goggles, red shirts, and ascot ties and pays them to help him stamp out sin, right down to cussing, in 1911 Alabama. His men are just along for the paycheck, for even the stupidest of them knows that eliminating sin in Alabama is a fool's errand. Walton strives hard for virtue, however, even to the extent of slamming his fingers in a drawer when he has an impure thought.
The cast of grotesques is extensive?the bailiff McKissick, his son, Junior, Walton's deputies, Smonk's lieutenants?but the plot is frail. Walton is chasing Evavangeline. McKissick is chasing Smonk. It reminded me of the capture, escape, flee, capture, escape of The Last of the Mohicans, and, as in Cooper, you should surrender to the fun of it, or put it down.
Tom Franklin's last novel, Hell at the Breech, was filled with murders and cruelties, but they were not exactly senseless. In Breech, there was a war on in Clark County, Alabama, a class war, the town against the county, the powerful against the weak, the bank against the debtors, to put it broadly.
In Smonk Franklin seems to be experimenting. He is trying to create a genre one might call The Southern instead of The Western?violence on the Southern frontier. But unlike the Western, which is traditionally sexless, Franklin mixes in coarse, homicidal sexuality. Sex and death are sometimes simultaneous in Smonk, and I don't mean the "little death" one finds in a John Donne poem, but the real thing. I bet Franklin had a lot of fun writing Smonk, but the road to large sales lies through the women's book discussion groups. Franklin must have known this as well as anyone; nevertheless, he wrote his book and took his chances.
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.