The last book I loved has a character with the same name as me. In Tom Franklin’s Smonk, a section titled “The Tale of Snowden Wright” describes its titular character, a preacher whose mental deterioration eventually leads him to rape his own daughters, with the following line: “He’d been born with one arm—where the other should have been, up at his shoulder, was a nub with six tiny fingernails.”
Only one question occurred to me after reading that sentence. How did Tom Franklin, who I have never met but who lives in my home state, nail me so well?!
Author of the short-story collection Poachers and the novels Hell at the Breach and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, Franklin was born in Alabama, received his MFA from the University of Arkansas, and teaches creative writing at the University of Mississippi. The South is his muse, naturally, as is apparent in Smonk. Set mostly in a town called Old Texas, Alabama, the novel follows the steps by which townspeople around the turn of the century attempt to rid themselves of the most sinister, devious, intelligent, intriguing, talented, and diabolical villains to grace the page since Cormac McCarthy gave us the Judge. Meet E.O. Smonk:
“Along with the Winchester he carried an ivory-handled walking cane with a sword concealed in the shaft and a derringer in the handle. He had four or five revolvers in various places within his clothing and cartridges clicking in his coat pockets and a knife in his boot. There were several bullet scars in his right shoulder and one in each forearm and another in his left foot. There were a dozen buckshot pocks peppered over the hairy knoll of his back and the trail of a knife scored across his belly. His left eye was gone a few years now, replaced by a white glass ball two sizes small. He had a goiter under his beard. He had gout, he had the clap, blood-sugar, neuralgia and ague. Malaria. The silk handkerchief balled in his pants pocket was blooded from the advanced consumption the doctor had just informed him he had.”
Franklin obviously had one hell of a good time writing this book. He hasn’t forgotten that literature, even when it aspires to high art, should first be entertaining. Smonk is just plain fun. The novel wears its influences on its sleeve—Deadwood as envisioned by both David Milch and Pete Dexter; Flannery O’Connor at her most grotesque and funny, which is to say, Flannery O’Connor at just about any time; William Faulkner circa Popeye’s incident with the corncob—particularly in its full title: “Smonk, or Widow Town: Being the Scabrous Adventures of E.O. Smonk & of the Whore Evavangeline in Clarke County, Alabama, Early in the Last Century.”
Even though the plot is a bit more convoluted, that title encompasses all I’d recommend a reader know before starting the book. Half the fun is seeing what happens next. Let’s just say that not since Stephen King’s Cujo has rabies played such an integral and terrifying role in the plot of a novel.
Tom Franklin’s Smonk will stay in my mind for a long time to come, not only because it always pops up when I Google myself, but also because it reminded me that good fiction can still be a good time.