Monday, August 26, 2013

HIstorical fiction from Franklin and Fennelly

Popular southern novelist Tom Franklin has entered the domain of historical fiction before, first with his bestselling Hell at the Breech (2003) and then again (sort of) with his lurid, black-comic, historical fantasy Smonk (2007). So it's not surprising to find myself using this space to review another historical novel with his signature attached to it, namely The Tilted World, scheduled for release in September.   What's different this time is that Franklin isn't the author but the co-author, the other co-author being none other than his energetic and ambidextrous wife Beth Ann Fennelly, she of well-deserved poetry and nonfiction fame (and current director of the esteemed MFA program at the University of Mississippi).  It's hard to know what made Fennelly want to jump into fictional waters or Franklin to move aside so gracefully to allow her a place in the pool, but readers will be glad for their mutual cooperation.  The historical setting for The Tilted World is the Great Flood of 1927—an event, the authors note in their engaging afterword, that not only displaced thousands of southerners and came with a political fallout similar to that which followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but which permanently altered the social and political landscape of America.  An event as titanic as that one certainly deserves a fictional retelling, but what proves more relevant to, and interesting in, the novel is another aspect of 1920s American history: prohibition.   After all, the America Franklin and Fennelly depict is an America very late into the peculiar experiment, an America in which revenuers can easily be bribed or otherwise made to disappear, where the revenuers themselves when off duty enjoy illegal whiskey as much as anyone, where things have gotten so bad Herbert Hoover has to create a special task force of select, honest revenuers, because so many in the service are uselessly corrupt.  In such an America move our two protagonists: Ted Ingersoll, a former army sharpshooter and one of those honest revenue agents, and Dixie Clay, a young wife of a Mississippi bootlegger who, only after she marries and realizes exactly how her husband makes his money, discovers she is quite the natural at making moonshine herself. 

What brings the two protagonists together is a child--orphaned due to a violent raid on a bootlegger--that Ingersoll needs to find a foster home for, and the fact that Dixie has recently suffered through a series of dispiriting miscarriages.   Indeed, Dixie is quite glad that Ingersoll found his way through the woods to her home, so glad she puts aside her natural suspicions.  And not surprisingly, Ingersoll takes a shining to the pretty, freckled, whip smart young woman.  There are a few roadblocks to romance though.  First of all, Dixie is married.  Second, she's a bootlegger.  Third, a historic flood is about to release itself upon the American South.  And fourth, her cad of a husband Clay is, unknown to Dixie, conspiring to commit a severe act of sabotage against their hometown and just at the worst possible moment.  Will love prevail?  Well, maybe so.  

Cagily focusing The Tilted World on two equally significant protagonists—one male, one female—the two different writers develop the novel on separate tracks for most of its length, permanently bringing together the protagonists only about three quarters of the way through.  (And fittingly with a powerhouse, nearly perfect scene that features a medical emergency with the child and some brilliantly calm parental nerves.)  It’s impossible not to imagine Franklin acting as the writer of Ingersoll or to imagine anyone but Fennelly as the originator of Dixie, who discovers her true role in life after Ingersoll gives her the orphan to raise as her own.  Throughout, Fennelly portrays Dixie’s struggles to align who she is with what she is allowed to do.  Not merely a pretty, innocent woman done wrong, Dixie is a proud craftsman, a woman given the unusual job of running the still because of her bootlegger husband’s frequent sales trips.  She proves not just capable at making tasty moonshine but superb at it, so good her husband insists she sacrifice quality for quantity so that he can better keep up with demand and turn an even better profit.  Dixie refuses to submit to this violation and comes up with a better plan: she increases the quality even more, so that her customers will be willing to pay many times what they would for ordinary liquor and in the process earn her husband the enhanced profit he seeks.  This sly strategy to both maintain her self-respect and pacify her husband fails in the end.  But then again everything is destined to fail in the light of the unprecedented natural disaster released upon Mississippi.  

Franklin’s Ingersoll, meanwhile, is a loveable, quietly heroic galoot.  While he’s a well-crafted and credible hero, what fascinates the reader in his chapters is less Ingersoll himself than the world of revenuers, those men trying to carry out a strange job against impossible odds, cultual lethargy, and their own growing distaste for the hypocrisy of it all.  In the Ingersoll chapters, Franklin’s taste for the lurid, the off-color, and the folkloric rise to the fore, engendering the fine entertainment we have come to expect from him. 

Eventually, of course, the two separate tracks of the novel merge, and half the delight of the book from that point on is guessing which scenes and what lines and which character impulses one of the authors suggested to the other.  It is a credit to them both that the latter chapters, when Dixie and Ingersoll are bound together, are as seamless and engaging as any in the book.

The Tilted World is a well-told, commercially viable literary novel set in the time of a notable historical event.  It’s no knock to the novel to say that one can easily imagine a movie coming from it.  It is that tight of a creation.  Of course, as with any book there are flaws.  One could wish for an even stronger emphasis on the flood itself and the resulting geo-political damage, or for a further exploration of the history of enforcement of the Volstead Act—but it’s a novel not an academic treatise.  One could wish that the inevitable pairing of Dixie and Ingersoll seem a bit less inevitable and the sex scene between them a little less ludicrous and a lot less telegraphed; one could wish for a few more characters who seemed less like types we’ve seen in southern fiction before.  On the other hand, when two writers of very different styles and sensibilities work together it is always a risk that they will cancel each other out, that what makes each most idiosyncratic, even masterful, will be sacrificed in the name of compromise, with the result being a muddled mess of competent but finally uninteresting writing.   It’s safe to say that that did not happen to Fennelly and Franklin in The Tilted World.  Rather than blunting each other’s strengths they seemed to have enhanced them.  In fact, it seems as if it’s the poet Fennelly who discovers and probes and solidifies the heart of the book, while it’s the fiction writer Franklin who keeps the story humming along at a steady pace.  That’s a delicate dance few writing couples, to say nothing of writing married couples, can pull off.  It’s a pleasure worth the price of admission to see Fennelly and Franklin make it work.


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