by Tom Franklin, appearing at Central Library, 801 SW 10th, Tuesday February 10, 7 pm
T outed as the most extraordinary first novel to come out of the South since Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, Tom Franklin's Hell at the Breech is a harsh, and strangely beautiful examination of the darkest parts of the human heart.
Based on events near the author's childhood home in a rural area of Alabama known as Mitcham Beat, the novel covers 1897-1898, when an aspiring politician's mysterious murder drove his vengeful friends--mostly poor cotton farmers--to form a secret society called Hell at the Breech. Members swore loyalty in blood, and wore hoods while terrorizing the townspeople they believed responsible for their friend's death. Soon the townspeople retaliated, the taste of blood driving both sides to furious, senseless acts.
Hell at the Breech is a difficult read, as even its few acts of mercy are tinged with cruelty. The cast of characters is lengthy and keeping them straight can hinder the narrative. But once you're in, all around are the smells and sounds and tensions of the post-Civil War South, and the characters, even the cruelest, are well drawn and somewhat sympathetic. Franklin's narration is like the view of a crow, flying over the wooded snarls and country houses, overhearing the inhabitants' worries, motives, and plans. All together, that din would be cacophony, but Franklin focuses in slowly, and at exactly the right moment, draws up, revealing the complicated web of history and the rippling effect of the characters' actions. Secrets and alliances gradually become clear, making the plot twists that seemingly stem from a single act that much more interesting and revelatory.
Franklin writes precisely and poetically, his similes matching his character's sensibilities. A poor farmer notices "field upon field of well-kept cotton, each tuft white as a senator's eyebrow." Franklin examines the themes of good versus evil, rich versus poor, town versus country, and law versus outlaw without being pedantic, and shows the rough and overlapping edges of each dichotomy. Hell at the Breech is a page-turner with teeth, a book you won't soon forget, though you may wish to. ERIN ERGENBRIGHT