Southern Lit: "Smonk," Tom Franklin

Good God, is this a violent book. I’m talking violent in a way that makes Al Swearengen look like Roy Rogers. You pick up Smonk, you’d best avoid pizza…and hamburgers…and milkshakes…and, well, pretty much any kind of eating or drinking. And every time you read this one, you probably ought to take a couple minutes to recompress lest you throw a few C-bombs at your significant other or mom. Tom Franklin is a great writer, heir to the fine Southern tradition of brutal realism, but this book blows right through the standards of every single community up to and including Sodom. Rape, incest, dissection, castration, murder in all its many forms…the violence is so pervasive that it’s almost symphonic.

Oh, and a swallowed glass eye gets recovered via sword surgery. It’s all here, folks.

Anyway, the plot: it’s Alabama, early twentieth century. Much like Faulkner’s Barn Burning, we first meet E.O. Smonk on trial in a country courthouse. Unlike Barn Burning, though, Smonk doesn’t get thrown out of town; instead, he does his best to haul every male in town straight down to hell with him. We’ll soon see that it’s classic Smonk, the kind of horrific bloodshed and death that the man specializes in. As the dying judge remarks ruefully after Smonk escapes,

Who wouldn’t admire the gall of a fellow brings a machine gun and a peck of hired killers to his own goddamn trial? Who wouldn’t admire a fellow never leaves a trail of evidence? That’s got this far in the world and galled so many folks and killed twice that number and cheated the rest, all without being blowed to itty bitty pieces or hanged by his goddamn neck or succumbing to one of the countless infirmities he seems to collect like a goddamn hobby, hell yeah I admire the sonofabitch.

Also involved in the Smonk affair are a young woman named Evavangeline (not a typo), a whore who responds to the brutal advances of men by simply eviscerating them; Phail Walton, an absurdly devout “Christian Deputy” who has a most unique (and painful) method for controlling his sexual urges; and the town of Old Texas, Alabama, where the men are dead (thanks to Smonk) and the women are…er…engaged in a pursuit that would make Edgar Allan Poe blanch.

This is the kind of hard-edged fiction that, like Cormac McCarthy, treads the line between the grotesque and the horrifying. Flannery O’Connor once remarked that all Southern writers are toiling away on the train tracks, with the freight train that is Faulkner always bearing down on them. That may indeed be true — but E.O. Smonk is the first guy who could skin O’Connor’s Misfit and hijack Faulkner’s train.

Highly recommended…as long as you know what you’re getting into.

Jay

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