Monday, June 11, 2012

The violent imagination of Tom Franklin

It would be hard to find a more easygoing guy than Tom Franklin, who I had the pleasure to meet when he spoke at my campus this spring.  Beneath the care free, self-effacing, regular guy facade, however, is an extremely fertile, even lurid imagination for crime.  Violent crimes--that is, murders--feature prominently in all four of his major works: the novella Poachers (2000) and his novels Hell at the Breech (2003), Smonk (2007), and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (2010).  These are no mere crime fictions, mind you, but carefully crafted, literary books.  It's hard to think of a contemporary author who I read with more pleasure.

In Hell at the Breech, Franklin transports his violent imagination to the late 1890s to depict the rise and fall of an Alabama crime gang that calls itself "Hell-at-the-Breech."  As is often the case with historical novels, the starting point for the novel is factual.  An actual gang of this name murdered and robbed with near impunity for over a year in Clarke County, Alabama in the late nineteenth century.  But as Franklin explains in a short note preceding the start of the novel, he did not feel tied to the historical record when it came to plotting his novel, all the characters of which are inventions of his own imagination.  A stickler might call the book an alternative history, or even a historical fantasy, but I prefer to think of it as a vividly conceived and effectively rendered fiction set in an earlier time period.  We've had this discussion before in this space: how much freedom should a historical novelist allow himself when writing about true events and real people?  Different novelists would answer this question differently, and finally there's no one perfectly successful equation.  It's kind of like asking for a definition of "creative nonfiction."  (Well, maybe that one's even harder.)  So it is refreshing to see Franklin dismiss the problem altogether by saying, in essence, "No matter what the historical record says, this is my story and my characters."  Bravo, Tom.   Anyone looking for purely objective and established data on any historical events--be that Hell-at-the-Breech's rampages, the Irish campaigns of Elizabeth II, or anything in between--should know to turn to history books not novels.  One should turn to historical novels because one enjoys entering an earlier time period by means of a story.  And if you do enjoy such stories, don't deny the storyteller his most powerful tool: imaginative liberty.

That said, Franklin recreates both the period and the place expertly in Hell at the Breech.  Franklin is Alabama born and bred; and no other writer I know is as centered in the landscape and temperature and languid rhythms and social currents of his home state than Tom Franklin.  A knowledge so sure it extends backwards to the 1890s as easily as if he just time traveled from there.  The props and the setting and the weaponry (always important in a Tom Franklin novel) are note perfect.  His characters, meanwhile--those inventions of his imagination--are difficult, unnerving, and remarkable, fundamentally a challenge.  None of them, even the seemingly virtuous, the ones with whom our sympathies reside, finally act with a great deal of virtue.  Each and every one of them exhibits wide glaring holes of selfishness and simple weakness that engender the violent events depicted and then make them worse.   Franklin rotates the book's point-of-view so that you are not merely reading along with the "good guys."  That would be too easy as well as dishonest.  Indeed, what becomes uncomfortably clear is that the "bad guys," while certainly unlikeable and even monstrous, are not without righteous cause--at least from their point-of-view--and some of the "good guys" (even the one the reader has the least reason to suspect) turn out to be compicit with the evil of the muders.  In the end the "good guys" end up killing as much as anybody else in this novel.  The knotted social situation of haves and have-nots, years of pent-up social seething, and the accumulation of a myriad petty jelousies, releases itself in a war that can come to no good end, even if it does come to an end.  Trust me, Franklin knows how to tell a story, and this is one story you'll want to plow through to find out just what is that end, unsightly though it may be.  Then you'll wish the book wasn't over.

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A morning lagniappe: I thought I should pass along a bit of publishing news.  A short story of mine--not a historical story--has just been published in the online magazine Literary Mama.  No, I'm not a mama, but I am a daddy, and the story is part of LM's effort--because it's Father's Day time of year in the USA--to publish creative work in which adult speakers look back upon the fathers they knew as children.  The story is titled "My Word."  You can read it here.


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