Tom Franklin, Smonk
Publisher: William Morrow
2006, 272 pages, hardback, $23.95
Woe to the faint of heart! The weak in constitution! Tom Franklin’s second novel, Smonk, may be the most bloody and profane book this side of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. And while the novel’s sundry perversions are enough to make Humbert Humbert blush, Smonk maintains a rare laugh-out-loud, read passages to your friends, humor.
Smonk is a western of sorts, meaning there are horses and gunplay and sheriffs, but all resemblances to that form stop there. Primarily set in the town of Old Texas, Alabama, and peopled as it is with witches, a one-eyed dwarf, Civil War refugees, and a group dubbed the Christian Deputies, Smonk reads more like a novel by Flannery O’Connor than it does one by Louis L’Amour.
Franklin centers the story on three dissimilar characters whose pasts are intertwined and whose fates head toward collision. E.O. Smonk is a one-eyed dwarf whose physical ailments include syphilis, the clap, gout, low blood sugar, neuralgia, ague, and malaria. Under his beard lies a goiter. A white glass ball, “two sizes two small,” fills the void of his missing eye. As the novel opens, Smonk rides into town on his mule to attend his own murder trial. But there’s foul play afoot. Smonk has walked into a trap. The angry mob in the courtroom—a saloon converted for lawful purposes when the need arises—has gathered to kill E.O. Smonk without the proper justice of the law on their side. Smonk, sniffing out the sabotage, fights his way out of the mob, not only by wielding his derringer and sword, but by spewing blood and shooting his glass eye from its socket. A massacre of Peckinpah proportion follows, and nearly every male citizen of Old Texas is killed, though E.O. Smonk walks out of town unscathed. But he’ll be back, no doubt.
The book also follows the travails of a young androgynous whore, Evavangeline. A tough gal—sort of an unholy version of Portis’ Mattie Ross from True Grit—Evavangeline kills a man then shoots an overgrown mole off his face to keep as a souvenir. Mistaken for a man and accused of homosexual relations, Evavangeline is pursued for acts she did not commit by a morally-inclined, but not legally sanctioned, group of men called the Christian Deputies. Led by head deputy Phail Walton, a blue blood Yank, the Christian Deputies attempt to detain Evavangeline in order to give him (Evavangeline) “a whooping.” But Phail Walton knows, after all, that Evavangeline is no man. For his part, Walton is consumed with stalking the whore from some need that lies between religious piety and his own repressed sexuality. It’s through Walton that Franklin delivers his darker passages of humor. During a struggle with lust that’s thrown Walton into a spiritual crisis, Franklin describes Walton’s relationship to his “member” as something
he wouldn’t even touch…would merely let it protrude and perform its task; and if it ever betrayed him and became engorged in his pants, he would pinch the purple turtle’s-head end, like Mother used to, and it would recede. When he has a night emission he would slam his fingers in the door come dawn and drink a pint of his own urine.
In such passages, you sense that Franklin is having so much fun with his characters, finding such glee in lurid detail, that it seems improbable that he’ll keep up the manic pace. But, much like Charles Portis’ Dog of the South, Smonk is entertaining throughout. And as the paths of E.O. Smonk, Evavangeline, and Phail Walton converge back to Old Texas, Alabama, each comic episode increases in hilarity. Each perversion drops further into baseness. And every act of violence is countered by another more horrifyingly brutal.
Smonk is a challenge to the reader’s threshold for vulgarity and savageness. The more squeamish reader will simply put the book down, while others will revel in the book’s ugliness. Either way, by allowing no room for ambivalence on the part of the reader, Smonk succeeds in eliciting a visceral reaction that rarely comes from modern literature. After all, what are we to make of such a world where redemption is scarce and the proclivity to kill is a prized virtue? It seems Franklin is laying waste to all things sacred in order to clear room for something new. Perhaps Franklin is calling into question the reader’s own moral fortitude by forcing the reader into a world gone so wrong that he must either join the debauchery or face extinction with his archaic notions of right and wrong. Evavangeline seems to be making a case for this reading when she reacts to Smonk’s sexual advances:
It’s evil, she said. But when she looked at Smonk a strange thing happened. Somehow he didn’t seem evil and he wasn’t ugly and misshapen and old and bloody. He was her daddy…Her guts felt like they shifted in his direction…Her hair stood on end, her skin tingling. Her nipples hot knobs.
E.O. Smonk is evil, all right. And one thing is for certain: whatever Franklin is saying, he is shouting it loud, grabbing us by the collar and demanding we listen. In this, he succeeds.
Franklin’s previous two efforts—the collection of stories
Poachers and the novel Hell at the Breech—garnered
praise from Richard Ford, Philip Roth, and Dennis Lehane,
while amassing Franklin a rabid fan base. Smonk,
too, is being met with praise. But even the most dedicated
Franklin-head will be unprepared for the depths of depravity
the author dives headlong into with Smonk. And from
this Franklin fan to the next, or to those considering investigating
the hype, I say: this trip into Franklin’s demented world
beats the hell out of any you’re likely to take anytime soon.
After all, Peckinpah’s dead. McCarthy’s stopped writing westerns.
And Portis hasn’t put out a book in fifteen years. The time
is right to usher in a new master of calamity: Tom Franklin.
- Bearden Coleman
An Interview with Tom Franklin
FP: In Smonk you tap into the archaic language and rhythms of the King James Bible. Yet, you don’t use the Bible the way, say, Cormac McCarthy does. You seem to be having more fun with it. What was your thought behind using the Bible the way you did? Did you grow up reading it like most good boys from the South?
TF: If by that you mean do I feel guilty for writing this, then Yes.
What's always fascinated me about the Bible—one of many things—is how earthy it is. How violent. How gothic. Here go Lot's two daughters into the cave where the old man's hanging out. They get him drunk and sleep with him. And earlier, by the way, two cities were destroyed, all their citizens killed. And we're hearing this in church.
About McCarthy: I think he's being lampooned a bit here, but so are others. This book's got its sillinesses, and its homages. One thing I love about the McCarthy novels and particularly Blood Meridian is how they look on the page, how the words look, without quotation marks, with minimal punctuation, just plain biblical. And he'll have a character say "ye" instead of "you," to show a hick accent ("I seen ye") and that looks biblical, too. King James biblical. I stole all that.
FP: The reviews Poachers got from Roth and Ford weren’t too shabby. That had to be a pat on the back. But now that you have two novels under your belt, do you think you’ll ever go back to short fiction?
TF: I will. Am, I mean. Have been. I've published a few stories lately. Got a half-dozen others in various messy situations. If I can think of a long one, I'll have just about another collection. But I have to do a novel first.
The quotes from Roth and Ford: I was the Philip Roth Resident in Creative Writing at Bucknell, and he wrote me a letter. He graciously agreed to let me use lines from it on a book jacket. Ford just wrote me a letter, via my editor, out of the blue. We'd met, but he'd have no reason to remember, but he too was generous, and wrote the quote after sending the letter.
FP: What’s down the pike?
TF: The aforementioned novel. It's shaping up into what it's going to be. I hope.
FP: So you were an extra on Deadwood. How did that come about? Did you get to say the perfunctory “fuck” on camera? Is Ian McShane as much of a bad ass in person as he is on the show?
TF: I'm friends with Earl Brown, who plays Dan Dority on the show. He and I have co-written a screenplay based on my story "Poachers" and he's in the process of making William Gay's novel Providences of Night into a movie. He, Earl, also wrote an episode of Deadwood last season. He asked William G. and me to come visit the Deadwood set, knowing we were both huge fans of the show. William wound up not going; I went.
As for saying "fuck" or "cocksucker," no, I didn't get a line and, truth is, I'm barely in the scene where I'm an extra. I'm there for a second, second and a half, then gone. It's sad. But lord did I have a good time.
But I didn't meet Mr. McShane, as they weren't shooting any of his scenes that day. I did get to sit at Swearingen's desk. And I met William Sanderson, and Molly Parker, and several others including Brad Douriff, who plays Doc Cochran and who, ironically, got me some eye drops when all that L. A. dust got to me.
FP: Okay, this next one is for personal reasons. When I started grad school I was surprised to find fiction students who were down on Charles Portis. It seems that the character Walton in Smonk, the leader of the Christian Deputies, must be influenced by Portis. So, what would you say to these students who bashed Portis? And am I anywhere close on my assessment of Walton?
TF:Who's down on Portis? Nobody who's down on Portis is a real writer. Walton is definitely my Portis homage. The way he quotes everything is a direct steal from Mattie Ross in True Grit. What to say to students bashing Portis? Just grow up. Learn to be quiet until you're smart enough to talk. You're dead on about Walton.
FP: You dedicated Smonk to Barry Hannah. I thought of Never Die while reading Smonk. What’s your relationship with the man?
TF: Never Die was an influence, too. I'm a huge Hannah fan. I'm shocked to be in the same town with him, the legend. One day a grad student said to me, "I saw Barry standing outside Kroger in sweat pants, smoking." Man, I love this town. I see Barry at school, where he scowl-smiles at me on his way to smoke. Or we go fishing and don't catch anything. Or at a reading, or in a bar, or at lunch. He's a great guy and kind. He's the one who showed how every sentence ought to count.
FP: What are your guilty reading pleasures?
TF: Nonguilty: Jack Pendarvis. The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure. Amazing book.
Also reading a lot of George Pelecanos.
Guilty? Nothing really. I can justify reading almost anything. TV is where guilt comes in. Or movies. When you watch Dumb and Dumber for the fiftieth time, you start to wonder where your priorities are.
Aaron M. Fortkamp
Public Relations Manager
Book Review Editor
All photos were taken at the Katherine Anne Porter Literary Center, by Sameera Kapila and Herpreet Singh.
Website design by Sameera Kapila