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  • TITLE: Smonk
  • AUTHOR: Tom Franklin

    Who wouldn't admire the gall of a fellow brings a machine gun and a peck of hired killers to his own goddamn trial? . . . [Smonk's] got this far in the world and galled so many folks and killed twice that number and cheated the rest, all without being blowed to itty bitty pieces or hanged by his goddamn neck or succumbing to one of the countless infirmities he seems to collect like a goddamn hobby, hell yeah I admire the son-of-a-bitch .

    --Justice of the Peace M. Elmer Tate

    -- Harper Collins, ARC state, ISBN 9780060846817, c.2006, p.75

    Smonk seems to have found its inspiration from the Western dime novels of the latter half of the 19th Century. The violence, outright gore, sensational bloodletting, circus-freak characterizations, vicarious torture and sex that's more rape and whoring than caring is a Pilgrim's Progress flipped for the dazzling but vacuous pace and taste of the 21st Century. This is not the biting, tradition-tooled satire of a Pynchon, Vonnegut, or even Ellis. Meaning, however buried, evaporates in the steaming entrails gutspilled throughout the novel. With embracing the slippery embellishments of the Paul Bunyan-esque tall tales, or the good ol' Christian vicegripings of Evil verses Unrecognized Evil (also known as Good) parables, the author further satirizes his historic, sensationalist model by jackhammering away the purpose for the sheen of gouting blood or the purpling of a fresh bruise. Most touchstones to human dignity are mere pebbles in the road. Values such as friendship, loyalty, or love are smirked aside for greed, meanness, outright bloodlust and perversion. What's left is a burlesque of bludgeonings.

    But that's not to say this isn't a fun, twisted read.

    If anything, Franklin has concocted a mental masturbation best enjoyed under the sheets with a flashlight. It's like being a furtive slasher-flick freak among cinema buffs who only watch Criterion-sanctioned films. You should be repentant to wallow in these surrogate abandonments. Shame on you.

    Needless to say, this is not a story of people you care about, unless you're the type who invites Hannibal Lecktor over for dinner conversation. E. O. Smonk, with his “immense dwarf shape, shoulders of a grizzly bear, [and] that bushel basket of a head” (p.2) is also missing an eye, has a large, pus-fulled goiter, and is afflicted with syphilis, gout, and advanced consumption. And those are his good qualities, because running this physical atrocity is the mental incarnation of “the booger-man” who “goes about killing innocent white folk by tearing they dang thoats out” while “burning down churches, eating children, laying with animals, peeing on young girls, [and] biting people's noses off” (p.192). He is the complete anti-thesis to the Leatherstocking hero persona. He is Homer's Cyclops, Beowulf's Grendel, and all of God's plagues from Revelations wrapped into one.

    In fact, the five character arcs parody or continue the stereotypes found in Erastus Beadle's dime novel publications starting as early as 1860, or the frontier hyperboles of Edward Z. C. Judson, aka Net Buntline.

    Evavangeline, to the modern eyes, is more akin to the Calamity Janes from the Western pulps of 125 years ago. As a scrawny 15-year old, she is constantly mistaken as a boy, yet she's an unflinching Amazonian in self-reliance, especially when her livelihood is threatened. If the video game Grand Theft Auto had a female FPS, it would have the voice of Juliette Lewis from Natural Born Killers with Evavangeline's sociopathic skills to murder her johns after the rent's paid on her cooter.

    Phail Walton, the leader of the Christian Deputies, is chasing Evavangeline and other “wretched heathens” as per his “Mission to spread Thy Gospel and dispense Thy Justice” (p.24). He is from Mama's closet; a dilettante spouting unreasonable honorifics and inadvertently acting the buffoon. He is the comic stage Yankee popular in the 50 years before the Civil War, haphazardly leading his men into one ludicrous situation after another, while flaunting the more cheeky traits of the American, stereotypical character.

    The baliff, William R. McKissick , and his son, William R. McKissick Jr. are the Revenger pieces of the plot. Junior, besides making a mockery of any true affection this pastiche might follow by substituting holding hands with handjobs, further embroiders one of the defining moments in Western dime novels by attacking Smonk with “[you] killed my daddy!” (p.240).

    The plot itself is a snake trail through butchery surpassing the “'carnage of Old Testament vicissitudes'” (p.86), and Marquis de Sade carnality without the erection. Along the way, there are wonderfully twisted colloquialisms and metaphors like gopherholes to break your ankle in. The abundant cowflop of comic moments rivals the accidental backseat shooting scene in Pulp Fiction. The climax is original if not preposterous, and leaves with a fitting sense of moral regeneration in its own fucked up way.

    Ultimately, Franklin 's singular vision of “such desolate southern climes” is truly “a world of plague and temptation, madmen and monsters” (p.236). It is an appropriate penny dreadful for the glutted sinkholes in American culture, and some of its more shame-stained history.


    © copyright 01/05/2007 by Larry Crawford

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