The first four chapters of Smonk surely rank among the most grotesque, savage and compelling fiction ever written. Using Alabama in the early 1900s as his setting, Tom Franklin has created two despicably fascinating characters, E.O. Smonk and Evavangeline, for whom violent and creative self-preservation are as natural as breathing. These two travel along separate paths of destruction, sharing some bit players in their storylines, but otherwise remaining oblivious of each other’s existence as they move toward the day of reckoning.
Whether they are evil incarnate, as some folks believe, or avenging angels, Franklin does not make clear, because he populates the countryside with enough human and animal detritus to place their actions in proper context. As bad as they may be, Smonk and Evavangeline are simply the best at playing a game in which survival is the only rule.
Franklin sets a frantic pace in the beginning, as the bodies and the indignities against humanity pile up like the carcasses of rabid dogs that litter the land. Smonk simultaneously repulses and demands rapt attention, appealing not to the prurient interests of pulp fiction but to the stunned disbelief that things cannot get any worse. Or can they?
But Smonk delivers more than just a western gore-fest. Franklin invokes the Book of Revelations, with its demand for unquestioning adherence to the prophet’s law, as a central theme in “Smonk.” Is the foundation on which the townspeople of Old Texas, Alabama, have constructed their twisted belief system any more fantastic, any more arbitrary, any more cruel, than the underpinnings of Judeo-Christian faith, he seems to ask without taking a side.
Franklin’s writing is tightly packed, but he does not sacrifice imagery for economy. His physical descriptions of people and place are terse but vivid, and his attention to the details that fill up each scene are cinematic in scope. Franklin even reveals a deft comedic touch as he relieves the tension with several minor characters, including a dandy from back east who suppresses his sinful lust with self-abuse, and his well-spoken but didactic Negro assistant.
If Quentin Tarantino ever wanted to film a western homage to his beloved Sergio Leone, director of Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns like “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” he would do well to option “Smonk” for his screenplay.
But Smonk considerable early promise dissipates as the story hurtles toward its inevitable apocalypse in the last quarter of the book, when Franklin ties up loose ends too quickly, as if a proctor called time before his essay exam was completed. Franklin leaves several subplots underdeveloped or unresolved, characters disappear without explanation, and the denouement, engorged with New Testament allegory, departs so far from plausibility that it renders the previous savagery void of credibility, as if this were just a well-crafted horror story.
Smonk, which excited me so much at first, ultimately left me wanting more from the author, but not from these characters. Instead, I think I’ll seek out Franklin’s collection of short stories, “Poachers,” where his compact writing, his gift from detail, and his boundless imagination promise a greater reward.