Between Sordid and Sublime
Tom Franklin’s Smonk is a terrifying ride through a writer’s psyche
by Kevin Crowe
News of the pervert Evangeline had gutted the midnight before. It went bunk to bunk in whispers and giggles. Instead of falling into the water like descent folk, the pervert had gotten tangled in a fishnet hung along the ship’s port side. Throughout the night a pulsing contingent of catfish, carp, grinnel, gar, sucker, alligators and even a few river-lost sand sharks disoriented by fresh water had followed the boat, swirling in the ooze. In the morning light, enormous orange crawfish with their pinchers clicking rode the body, one arm of which trailing in the water was festooned with moccasins attached at the fang. When one became too blooded it fell loose and sank in the clouds in the sky in the river.
Tom Franklin’s newest novel, Smonk , takes us on a tour through the fetid, oversexed, under-loved and unflinchingly violent. At times the novel borders on the ridiculous, like a spaghetti western gone wild. Even Franklin will tell you that much of the novel was written in a directionless, perhaps manic manner, his energies moving from intense production to heavy editing as the intricacies of the story slowly came into focus. Thankfully, where the plot might have spiraled out of control, Franklin was able to pull it back toward realityland, never letting his characters indulge too deeply in the absurd.
There’s master writing on each page, the kind of prose that’ll make a wannabe journalist like me jealous.
Yet it wasn’t an easygoing beast to write. “I feel rushed at the end,” Franklin admits. “I had no idea where it was going to go.” Sometimes it’s lewd, but it’s also extremely beautiful in places. Overall, it’s just an endearingly human work. There’s no overt or guiding philosophy that needs to be decoded, just people being people. The characters may seem turgidly drawn from time to time, sure, but they’re people nonetheless.
We see the town of Old Texas, Ala. Its citizens try desperately to make sense out of the world. Religions get warped. Disease is misunderstood. People are brutally murdered. Children are too young to understand that they’ve already lost their innocence.
In a perfect world, we’d probably read literature about perfect worlds. Because we don’t have the luxury of perfection, Franklin takes us to a place that’s much more interesting than any utopia. The world of Smonk is the post-bellum South, set back when there were still large, unexplored sections of maps, when geography still held a certain air of possibility and adventure. There are real monsters in this world, waiting in darkness. Daring us to understand them. The facts don’t always come as clearly as we’d like. That’s especially disheartening if you happen to be the writer.
“I’m really disappointed with hundreds of things in it,” Franklin says of his book. “I sat down and spent a day reading it. I found about 10 or 15 mistakes and just recoiled.”
As the novel begins to pan out, as it begins to grow into itself, geography can become harder to pin down precisely, the caliber of guns miraculously change, and minor characters disappear, never to be heard from again.
The plots, seemingly divergent in the beginning, slowly yarn together, as the background of the mysterious Smonk, a diseased, iron-willed gunslinger, becomes clearer. The true nature of Smonk, who exists in the between-space where man and animal meet—lost somewhere between the civilized and the primitive—is never fully extrapolated.
“[Smonk] was huge at one point,” Franklin describes his early mental images of the character. “He was the size of a bear.” The gargantuan Smonk was short-lived, however, because Franklin eventually opted for a diminutive approach. “I picture him as Danny DeVito as the Penguin in Batman ,” he says. “It’s easy to be big and menacing. But it’s hard to be small and menacing.”
Critics have been quick to ask, “ Why?” when they began slogging though 250 pages of seemingly gratuitous sex and death—the debaucheries tend to gain momentum as the book climaxes, so to speak.
“Here’s what actually happened,” Franklin goes on. “I learned that it’s the book I wanted to read. I was surprised by the sex—I thought it was funny. Some people have missed the point; it’s really tongue-in-cheek.”
And it’s been a tongue-in-cheek project since the first draft. In its early stages, the characters of Smonk existed as nameless commodities, as people who were only identified by their professions. As Franklin saw it, the book was a satire of southern literature as a whole, a way to guffaw and shout nyuck-nyuck at an entire literary tradition.
The idea was funny enough, until an astute early reader asked why she should care about the characters. Slowly, Smonk began to take shape. “I had no idea what Smonk was,” Franklin says. “This whole story was in my head; I don’t know where it came from.
“That’s how I’ve always worked. It’s like following a flashlight. I just go in there and make a mess and see what happens.”
Who: Knoxville Writers’ Guild presents Tom Franklin