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Poachers: Stories Paperback – May 30, 2000
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"[A] startling debut collection ... darker than anything delivered since the work of James Dickey".
-- San Francisco Chronicle
"I like Tom Franklin's stories the same way I like Lucinda Williams' music, and for the same reason: they're not updating an old song. They're set in the south, sure. But they're a new song for the south. They possess an inherent sweetness even when they're rough 'n tough. And when they're funny, it's not at the world's expense. They're poignant, and I suppose their poignance comes from longing; yet not for some mossy past--because they are contemporary stories--but for the present, as it spirits away from in front of us just at the moment we notice it's arrived. These stories surprised me. They give valuable and unexpected depth to what I thought fiction could do."-- Richard Ford"Franklin writes as if his hands and mind are on fire. "Poachers plumbs raw and startling places. His stories are burning, waiting for you."-- Rick Bass"[A] startling debut collection...darker than anything delivered since the work of James Dickey."-- "San Francisco Chronicle
From the Back Cover
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, handpainted sign reads: "Jesus is not coming". This terrain isn't pretty, isn't for the weak of heart, but in these desperate, lost people, Franklin somehow finds the moments of grace that make them what they so abundantly are: human.
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But in this place with its entrenched poverty among a folk this degraded, when things can go bad, when dreams can go bust, they usually do. Spectacularly so. These stories from Tom Franklin are reliably violent, and suitably ill-fated, peopled with characters who, if they weren’t self-destructive it might be difficult to identify any other character trait they do possess. And yet this collection of faithless womenfolk, frugal hill-dwellers, skin and bones black poor, and colorfully named hunting dogs is somehow unsympathetic, the victims of being, perhaps, too carefully drawn.
Make no mistake, Tom Franklin can conjure up the bedraggled South – or at least how I imagine it must be – but too often the scenes that result have the feel of something created for the stage rather than the page. A hound dog by the fieldstone fireplace. The sound of raccoons scrounging in the garbage cans outside. Coyotes down at the pond hunting bullfrogs. The bullfrogs croaking in the mist. The toothless granny singing gospel hymns, her rocking chair thumping against the wide-plank pine floorboards. The divorcee granddaughter making grits in the kitchen while Junior shoots cats in the barn. And papa sitting alone, putting his nightly 12-pack to bed, mumbling regrets over friends long dead. And while none of that (almost none of that) specifically appears in these stories, these character types fall flat not from overburdened characterization, but from a sort of enforced authorial isolation - as if they were the product of a writer producing character studies to be used in some future story. Like a child's peel-and-paste sticker book, they could be stuck into any and every fictional locale, yet seem to beg organic inclusion into the setting written specifically for them. These characters tend to exist, to act as if there were no one around to interact with, to converse solely within their own heads. It could be they're laconic or simply lonely, but these Southerners don’t talk all that much, and when they do they sound like they’re delivering lines – their stories just so much well-crafted exposition, setting us up for action that never comes.
It’s not that these tales of industrial murder, not-so-civil disobedience, a birthday rhinoceros, and the hint of hot-wife swapping are uninteresting, but they are somehow static – resigned to the inertia of the lives they chronicle. So clean, so meticulously drawn, down to the suitably bad choices they will all eventually make.
Two exceptions from the frustrations of this literary inertia are well worth mentioning: the delightfully menacing “Ballad of Duane Juarez” and the title story, more a novella, “Poachers”. Perhaps because they are less concerned with their characters’ internality, affording us plenty of action to weigh against its possible motivations, but more, I think, because these deeply tragic stories expertly keep the tension at a low simmer, their reveal coming late, coming sharp.
Imagine what American fiction in general would look like without the brilliance of Southern fiction – without Welty, Faulkner, O’Connor, Gay, McCarthy, and this writer, Tom Franklin. Pretty depleted. Now imagine the choice between NO Southern fiction, and Southern fiction that’s just good enough. "Poachers", despite its unevenness, despite its hesitance to reveal the horrors and take the risks we expect from the best writers of the American South, is more than “good enough”; it’s a worthy addition to your Southern list. It’s a set of stories akin to moonshine: even when it’s not great, it’ll still put hair on your chest. But when it’s good, it’s - damn, boy! sit down and get your breath – so fine.
Like the author, I occupied a liminal position in this lifestyle. Though I preferred books to bullets, I became a seasoned hunter by the age of 9. And yes, I was privy to the ceremonial bloodbath that accompanies one's first kill, and as grotesque as the experience was, even as a youth, I came to understand that this blood, my kill, was my passageway to respect from my family and the community.
Given all of this and my love for evocative, razor sharp imagery, "Poachers" occupies a certain spot in my heart. Rich in characterization and spot-on images of a society in varying states of decay (either moral, physical, or environmental), each of Franklin's stories has something to offer. Of the collection of stories, my favorite would have to be "Blue Horses," which is understated in its language and structure but powerful in its aftertaste. It will linger with you for days, to say the least. I was also fond of "Dinosaurs". Beneath its hardscrabble prose, imbued with cigarette smoke and grease, lies the essence of true filial commitment.
Given this collection was Franklin's literary debut, I am impressed with what he offers. Each story is worth reading, and most worth reading a few times over. Don't let the genre of "grit-lit" scare you from this undertaking because underneath all the grit, there is something raw and true that must be said.
The stories here are both gritty and subtle. In a word, real. Franklin captures the speech, mannerisms, and thoughts of his characters perfectly as they move through the dark and unforgiving reality of their rural southern lives.
One mistake some people make while reading southern fiction is to get caught up in the loud and raucous parts and completely miss the subtlety that makes it so powerful. Here we move silently through shadowy swamps. We wake up drunk at 5am in an icy truck cab looking for a gun. We drive past smokestacks of paper mills and rural chemical plants. We fish with dynamite. This is the world of run down trailers, misty railroad trestles, boarded up windows and rusting boxcars. These are the quiet, uncomfortable places where bad decisions get made. Through it all, however, we see and understand these lost characters through their understated grace and humanity.
Tom Franklin is a gifted writer with a deft hand. He tilts the gritty window pane of each story just so, letting in barely enough light to give us the barest glimpse of what is really going on in the depths of the misty and dangerous southern woods.