“My south – the one I haven’t been able to get out of my blood or my imagination, the south where these stories take place – is lower Alabama, lush and green and full of death, the wooded counties between the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers.” (p. 1)
The ten stories included in Franklin's first collection conjure a world where the default setting is violence, a world of hunting and fishing, gambling and losing, drinking and poaching—a world most of us have never seen.
This strange yet intriguing world is filled with gritty characters who find themselves in lower Alabama's version of the New South without roadmaps or guide books. They are lost, displaced or trapped in a world that moved into the future before they could get prepared for it.
In these stories the Old South is taking its final gasps as the new, modern South takes charge in the lives of the most ordinary men. Despite the fact that the fight for dominance is over, the old wounds have yet to heal, making for anything but the relaxing, quiet life most commonly linked to the South.
Almost all of Franklin’s characters are male and definitely operate on the fringes of society by their own moral codes. They are unfaithful husbands, unlawful poachers, unscrupulous schemers, unsympathetic murderers. They cheat their employers (“Grit”), blackmail each other (“Grit”), gamble themselves into debt (“Grit), drink excessively (“Triathalon”), ignore laws (“Poachers”), compromise their integrity (“Dinosaurs”), run away from commitments (“Triathalon”), deceive women (“Instinct”), murder without remorse (“Poachers”), and even kill cats (“The Ballad of Duane Juarez”). Franklin shows compassion for each one of these men, no matter how tragically flawed or hopelessly damaged they may be.
In the “chilling” title novella, a weathered, hand-painted sign that reads: “Jesus is not coming.” Those four words capture the despair that characterizes this region and permeates each of these stories. This terrain isn't pretty, isn't for the weak of heart, but in these desperate, lost people, Franklin somehow finds the moments of grace that make them what they so abundantly are: human.
Ron Rash captures that same humanness in his equally bleak but beautiful short stories set in the backwoods region of the Appalachian Mountains of western North and South Carolina. Perhaps that is why I was drawn to stories written by Franklin.
No character created by Rush (or Franklin, I believe) is either all good or all bad, “a demon or a hero,” as Reviewer Benjamin Judge points out. Although it would be easy to dismiss these characters as people from another planet, Rush humanizes them in a way that won’t allow us to cast them aside. “We have to face them for what they are, slight variations of ourselves.”
“Dinosaurs” is a lighter story in which the bond of between an elderly father and son overshadows a breach in integrity. A ground water contamination inspector conspires with the owner of a rundown gas station on the verge of going out of business to overlook several hazardous leaky storage tanks in exchange for a 350-pound stuffed rhinoceros that stands between two antique gas pumps, intended to attract customers. The rhino will be a present for his father “who called Steadman more and more but remembered him less and less” on his seventy-eighth birthday (p. 105). As Steadman hauls the colossal beast away he pictures the scene of the “rhino beside azaleas, surrounded by old people at the nursing home, his father among them, touching and stroking the dangerous beast with lust in their fingertips, a birthday gift ancient, faithful, unforgettable.” (p. 117)
“Alaska” adds a whimsical touch of fantasy to the otherwise heavier stories in this collection. The narrator, seeking escape from his ordinary life, fantasizes abandoning Mobile and driving to Alaska with his best friend. He describes in detail their adventures along the way, including attending faith healing revivals, picking up chicks hitchhiking, listing to books-on-tape, adopting a stray mutt, fishing for largemouth bass, sipping moonshine, and playing harmonicas around the campfire. Although he never gets farther than the shores of a pond in southern Alabama, the imagined journey lifts the narrator above the monotony of his otherwise uneventful life.
Tom Franklin's Writing Style
This first collection is a testament to his storytelling skills and the ability to write about dark subject matter with prose that is lyrical and beautiful. His imagery is so vivid you can almost feel the mosquitoes biting in the eerie swamps where the Gates brothers hang out. Franklin also knows when to stop writing and let readers’ imaginations take over to complete the story.
Franklin grew up reading Stephen King and Edgar Rice Burroughs and was influenced by the writings of another great short story writer—Rick Bass. His writing has also been compared to Raymond Carver and Ron Rash with a touch of Stephen King—an intriguing combination.
About Tom Franklin
Growing up in a tiny hamlet of 400 residents in southern Alabama, Franklin earned a BA in English from the University of South Alabama and an MFA in fiction at the University of Arkansas. He now serves as an Associate Professor of Fiction Writing at the University of Mississippi. In addition to this short story collection, he has published four novels and won several literary awards.
Selected Poachers Reviews
Book Review Poachers by Tom Franklin
Mississippi Writers: Tom Franklin
Out of the Mouths of Bubbas
Poachers by Tom Franklin
Poachers by Tom Franklin