Thursday, September 28, 2006

Savage and savvy, 'Smonk' goes on a rampage

Savage and savvy, 'Smonk' goes on a rampage

Smonk By Tom Franklin
William Morrow, 254 pp., $23.95

By Edward Nawotka, Special for USA TODAY

In acknowledgments at the end of Smonk, Tom Franklin thanks his wife, poet Beth Ann Fennelly, "for never running screaming from the house" after reading early drafts. Too bad this doesn't appear at the start, where it might have warned readers just how twisted this novel is — even if it's also ingenious.

Smonk, Franklin's follow-up to 2003's Hell at the Breech, churns together elements of Southern Gothic, gunslinger Westerns and horror to convey the tale of Old Texas, a tiny, isolated Alabama town surrounded by scorched sugarcane fields and filled with "strangeness and secrets."

The only residents of the town are a few ragtag men and dozens of widows and young women. There, the dry air is filled with the barking of rabid dogs and the hissing of flesh-eating vultures.

The Civil War, though nearly a half-century in the past, took the town's original cadre of men, most of whom never returned. Now the town is at war with a new nemesis in the person of Eugene Oregon Smonk, a killer without conscience.

Smonk is one of the more corrosive villains in recent literature: an explosives expert trained during the war with Spain, who, despite his dwarfed stature, missing eye, immense goiter, "parched skin the color of an ancient red saddle," syphilis and consumption, retains a magnetic power over the women of Old Texas.

As the novel begins, Smonk shows up to stand trial for terrorizing the town and having his way with the local women.

He suspects a lynching and has hired a pair of mercenaries to back him up with a water-cooled Maxim machine gun.

Soon, Smonk has reduced the courthouse to splinters and dispatched dozens of souls to heaven before fleeing. The two townsmen who remain alive form a pathetic posse and give chase.

Highly entertaining, Smonk is more picaresque than deftly plotted, and full of exaggerated violence worthy of a Japanese comic book. Some sensitive readers may want to run screaming from the house, but those with a strong stomach for graphic death and sex will be smitten with Smonk.