Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Smonk, Tom Franklin

It was the eve of the eve of his death by murder and there was harmonica music on the air when E.O. Smonk rode the disputed mule over the railroad tracks and up the hill to the hotel where his trial would be.

And so begins this fabulous tale of the new mythology of Smonk, Evavangeline, Phail Walton, William R. McKissick Jr., and the entire town of Old Texas. The characters are truly unforgettable, as is the riding. What makes them unforgettable is not their commonality but the believable unbelievableness of who they are, the choices they make and how purely unredemptive most of them are. You don't have to like Smonk, though you might find yourself drawn to him in ways you can't quite explain. With his odd shape, his massive goiter, glass eye and more disgusting behaviors than can be listed here. You know you shouldn't care for Evavangeline; the surprisingly naive, violent, 15yr old whore who can't retain her rage when she drinks and yet finds herself allowing some hormone-driven actions with McKissick Jr. in a simple, openly heartfelt way of caring for him and a gaggle of orphans. McKissick Jr., possibly fated to be an outlaw no matter what chances he is given at a new life, proving that nature is often more powerful than nurture. Phail Walton: the head of the Christian Deputies who is so faithful, so devout that he drinks urine and slams his fingers in a drawer rather than feel the slightest feelings of lust and is also utterly, perhaps hopelessly, naive in his attempts to educate the near-outlaws who follow him.

It is not only superbly crafted as its sentences are nearly all worth reading aloud (and in fact, should be) but the imagery is so precise that you find it lodged permanently in your brain. Which, normally, is a wonderful thing for a novel to possess! Unless, like in Smonk, the imagery is so violent that the images can be disturbing to people who may focus more on that than on the gorgeously crafted prose that makes up every single page from start to finish.

It's edgy, rough debauchery that swirls like a prickly tumblewood flying across a desert; dark humor that tempts you not to laugh aloud; bleak beauty that is found in the hearts of even the worst characters: I am hopelessly, madly in love with this remarkable book. Though not for everyone, if it is for you then it will lodge itself on your shelf for years to come with many required rereadings. And reread you will.

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