In ten stunning and bleak tales set in the woodlands, swamps and chemical plants along the Alabama River, Tom Franklin stakes his claim as a fresh, original Southern voice. His lyric, deceptively simple prose conjures a world where the default setting is violence, a world of hunting and fishing, gambling and losing, drinking and poaching-a world most of us have never seen. In the chilling title novella (selected for the anthologies New Stories from the South: The Year's Best, 1999 and Best Mystery Stories of the Century), three wild boys confront a mythic game warden as mysterious and deadly as the river they haunt. And, as a weathered, hand-painted sign reads: "Jesus is not coming." This terrain isn't pretty, isn't for the weak of heart, but in these deperate, lost people, Franklin somehow finds the moments of grace that make them what they so abundantly are: human.
These 10 honestly crafted and carefully executed tales of cottonmouths and skulking outlaws in the South unflinchingly explore the pitfalls and dangers involved in making one's place in the world. The collection's power arises from Franklin's reluctance to analyze its (often bloody) events. In "Dinosaurs," a waste inspector takes a huge stuffed rhinoceros as a reward for not closing down a gas station with several hazardous leaky pumps. In "Grit," a devious laborer at a minerals processing plant trades positions with his supervisor through blackmail involving gambling debts, only to see the scam backfire. The protagonist of "Triathlon," a man trapped in a decaying marriage, remembers fishing for sharks on the night before his wedding. Fantasy has its place, too, as in "Alaska," in which a rambling male voice describes an imagined trip to the Northwest that never gets farther than the shores of a pond in some unspecified Southern location; although little happens, the story's dreamy meandering is seductive. In "The Ballad of Duane Juarez," a man commits small crimes without guilt because he has given himself a fake name, and thereby a fake identity. The other stories in the book, however, only provide a tantalizing buildup to the chilling title story, in which a legendary and demonic game warden in a small Alabama town stealthily and privately punishes three youths who have murdered his predecessor. Franklin announces the arrival of the avenger with a sentence no more complete than "A match striking," and yet this is enough for a good scare. While he may occasionally wax sentimental about life in the impoverished South, Franklin's style is often as laconic and simply spoken as his characters' dialogue, sometimes close to Hemingway, but more often akin to Denis Johnson or Raymond Carver in its resonant ordinariness. Although some readers may balk at the virtual absence of women from these intensely masculine yarns, those who persist will be persuaded by their gruff grace. (June)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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May 30, 2000
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Excerpt from Poachers by Tom Franklin
Chugging and clanging among the dark pine trees north of Mobile, Alabama, the Black Beauty Minerals plant was a rickety green hull of storage tanks, chutes and conveyor belts. Glen, the manager, felt like the captain of a ragtag spaceship that had crashlanded, a prison barge full of poachers and thieves, smugglers and assassins.
The owners, Ernie and Dwight, lived far away, in Detroit, and when the Black Beauty lost its biggest client--Ingalls Shipbuilding--to government budget cuts, they ordered Glen to lay off his two-man night shift. One of the workers was a long-haired turd Glen enjoyed letting go, a punk who would've likely failed his next drug test. But the other man, Roy Jones, did some bookmaking on the side, and Glen had been in a betting slump lately. So when Roy, who'd had a great year as a bookie, crunched over the gritty black yard to the office, Glen owed him over four thousand dollars.
Roy, a fat black man, strode in without knocking and wedged himself into the chair across from Glen's desk, probably expecting more stalling of the debt.
Glen cleared his throat. "I've got some bad news, Roy--"
"Chill, baby," Roy said. He removed his hard hat, which left its imprint in his hair. "I know I'm fixing to get laid off, and I got a counteroffer for you." He slid a cigar from his hat lining and smelled it.
Glen was surprised. The Ingalls announcement hadn't come until a few hours ago. Ernie and Dwight had just released him from their third conference call of the afternoon, the kind where they both yelled at him at the same time.
"How'd you find that out, Roy?" he asked.
Roy lit his cigar. "One thing you ain't learned yet is how to get the system doggie-style. Two of my associates work over at Ingalls, and one of 'em been fucking the bigwig's secretary."
"Hang on, Glen. I expect E and D done called you and told you to lay my big fat ass off. But that's cool, baby." He tipped his ashes into his hard hat. " 'Cause I got other irons in the fire."
He said he had an "independent buyer" for some Black Beauty sandblasting grit. Said he had, in fact, a few lined up. What he wanted was to run an off-the-books night shift for a few hours a night, three nights a week. He said he had an associate who'd deliver the stuff. The day-shifters could be bought off. Glen could doctor the paperwork so the little production wouldn't be noticed by Ernie and Dwight.
"But don't answer now," Roy said, replacing his hard hat. "Sleep on it tonight, baby. Mull it over."
Glen--a forty-two-year-old ulcer-ridden, insomniac, half-alcoholic chronic gambler--mulled Roy's idea over in his tiny apartment that evening by drinking three six-packs of Bud Light. He picked up the phone and placed a large bet with Roy on the upcoming Braves--Giants game, taking San Francisco because Barry Bonds was on fire. Then he dialed the number of the Pizza
Hut managed by his most recent ex-wife's new boyfriend, placed an order for five extra-large thick-crust pies with pineapple and double anchovies, and had it delivered to another of his ex-wives' houses for her and her boyfriend. Glen had four ex-wives in all, and he was still in love with each of them. Every night as he got drunk it felt like somebody had shot him in the chest with buckshot and left four big airy holes in his heart, holes that grew with each beer, as if--there was no other way he could think of it--his heart were being sandblasted.
The Braves rallied in the eighth and Bonds's sixteen-game hitting streak was snapped, so when Roy came by the next day, Glen owed him another eight hundred dollars and change.
Roy sat down. "You made up your mind yet?"
"Impossible," Glen said. "Even if I wanted to, I couldn't go along. Ernie and Dwight'd pop in out of nowhere and we'd all be up the creek."