Thursday, June 9, 2011

Murder and Moonshine

Got this friend who is proving to have an almost infallible knack of knowing what kind of books I like to read. Cleaning out some shelves a few years back he filled a box with some books by writers he thought I needed to pursue. Names like Philip Caputo, Julia Glass, Don Winslow and John Dufresne. He was pretty much on the money with each of those, and succeeding handouts have included Kent Haruf, Tom Rob Smith and Thomas Lynch. Once again writers who have joined my list of favorites.

I think it was last summer That R slipped another book or three in my bag the morning I left his house for the long drive home. One of those side pocket books waited half a year before ending up in my hands, and as usual turned out to be a major read. The book is Hell at the Breech by Tom Franklin, published in 2003.

Franklin hails from Dickinson, Alabama and is the author of a notable collection of stories titled Poachers, named the Best First Book of Fiction by Esquire in 1999 and also the winner of a 1999 Edgar Award for the title story of that collection. He published his third novel in 2010. Franklin lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and is Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss.

In the late 1890s in southwest Alabama an accidental killing builds to a savage killing spree between the people of neighboring towns. Franklin’s story in Hell at the Breech is one he heard while growing up in Alabama and hinges upon downtrodden sharecroppers and the landowners who controlled their fate. The name of his book is taken from what the murderous vigilantes called their fraternity. Macky Burke, an orphan boy of fourteen unintentionally shoots and kills local storeowner, Arch Bedsole. The shooting goes unwitnessed, but the dead man’s cousin “Tooch” uses the killing as a pretext to form a vigilante gang to redress wrongs, though his real intentions are murder, robbery and intimidation of innocent people. Mayhem follows and Sheriff Billy Waite seems powerless to stop it. Not until an opposing gang of fifty ride into the fray igniting further killing does Sheriff Waite step in to quell the senseless bloodlust.

Let it be clear from the start—this is not a story for the faint of heart. The violence is medieval and the two or three scenes with local whore Annie wholly graphic. It is biblical in its sense of calamity, refusing to romanticize the South or the people who plowed its acres of cotton. They are people with old dirt under their nails and a morality soaked in bloodshed. What seems almost odd about Franklin’s otherwise perfect dialogue is its complete absence of expletives. One man taunts another and finally cuts his throat, all with nary a swear word. Franklin is writing in the idiom of his own childhood, his own Alabama and the language is colorfully accurate, though with a curious omission of taboo words.

Hell at the Breech simmers with the classic themes of good vs evil, of greed and power and the frustration of those without it. The story’s dark events lead its characters to ultimately discover their capacity for evil—or not.

The man in the white hat is aging Sheriff Billy Waite, whose biggest sin in the book is that he waits too long. Easily Franklin’s most complete and layered character, Waite is a man too fond of the bottle, distanced from wife and son and often brutally violent. But among the crooks, criminals and backwoods farmers Waite is the unlikely hero, the one with a sense of compassion and respect for the law and for justice. He is a man who feels his responsibilities as a weight around the ankle but also as the force spurring him into action.

From a small nugget of primitive Alabama history Franklin has molded a well shaped story revolving around thievery, arson, ignorance and moonshine, a story carried from first page to last with a sense of mystery and menace. None of the standard components are lacking in this novel. There is a strong story, a rich setting, a host of colorful characters, and a solid theme, all of it given to us in unpretentious, masterly writing.

Hell at the Breech is riveting.


  1. This might interest some readers but it's not for me.

  2. Tom Franklin would no doubt love this post. He is quite the writer and things bode well for him to amass a substantial body of work. Oh, that the Coen brothers could get their hands on the film rights; this is prime territory for them. Franklin is a writer to watch and read.

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About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America