Saturday, April 26, 2008

Tom Franklin, "Hell at the Breech" (2003).

Having sampled Tom Franklin's writing in his short story collection Poachers, I thought that I'd return to the well for a novel. Hell at the Breech is (nominally) historical fiction about a backwoods war pitting town vs. country folk in Alabama's Clark County. Apparently the author first heard tales of this feud while growing up in the very state where it happened. One might expect a litany of violence, unremitting vengeance and good old Southern backstabbing- and if that is the type of thing you are interested in, you can indeed find it all right here. However don't expect to find some pulpy, breezily entertaining read. Franklin's got the goods, and while comparisons to William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy may be presumptuous, they may not be completely out-of-order.

The cycle of mayhem is set off when two young rural brothers decide to play 'highwaymen" along an isolated dirt road out in the sticks. Macky and William Burke merely want to get a few funds so they can visit the local prostitute, but they inadvertently set off a chain of events that builds steam until the region's inhabitants become inextricably involved in a series of bloody conflicts. Sheerly by accident they manage to kill a man. Fortunately for them, they are able to slink away without their deed being witnessed. When the murder is discovered by the victim's cousin, an insidious plot is hatched to extend the violence outward. The poor folk of the Mitcham Beat have been oppressed by the 'city ways' of nearby Grove Hill and Coffeeville for far too long.

County Sheriff Billy Waite is growing weary and preparing to retire from his long career as a lawman. He understands the barely repressed hostilities and resentments borne on the chests of the cotton farmers in Mitcham Beat. When he learns of Arch Bledsoe's death, he knows there is going to be trouble. Bledsoe was a popular store owner and aspiring politician who was extremely popular in the outlying rural areas of the county. Not only was he free with the bootleg whiskey he stocked at his shop, but he had the only outdoor croquet court for hundreds of miles. When his surviving kinsman "Tooch" Bledsoe decides to form a local gang called 'Hell-at-the-Breech' to avenge his cousin's death, he is able to recruit a small band of potential outlaws, ready and wiling to take the fight to the towns. Soon he has built his own little fiefdom in the wilderness.

"Tooch" begins his efforts close to home. He and his men (including the Burke brothers) start to lean on the neighboring farmers. They let them know that sides must be chosen. Either they will assume the banner of the 'Breech', or they must keep silent and stay out of its way. When several independently-minded dirt-scratchers challenge his growing authority, they find themselves on the wrong end of some unlucky mishaps. A few of them end up six feet under the cold, hard ground. As news of this filters back to Grove Hill, pressure builds on Sheriff Waite to get some satisfaction. He intends to get to the bottom of this rash of violence and bring the appropriate ne'er-do-wells to justice. Problem is there isn't a lot of love for him out in the cut. And eventually the "Breech" strikes closer to home.

Franklin's prose is spare and precise. He doesn't waste a lot of time examining the inner lives of these simple and brutal men, but rather conveys character and motivation through their laconic verbal interchanges, and their deeds. Many of the incidents he describes are brutally violent and gory- yet never sensationally so. The visceral nature of the evils perpetrated among the cotton fields and dense woods is conveyed without unnecessary elaboration. And yet even within the most malicious perpetrators, he finds strains of humanity. The reader understands how the hardscrabble conditions of life in rural southwestern Alabama (in 1897) led to bloodletting and betrayal. Franklin's account is all-the-more convincing because it is essentially true. This is exactly how historical fiction should be written, even if it doesn't adhere strictly to the 'facts'.

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