Eugene Oregon Smonk had “several bullet scars in his right shoulder and one in each forearm and another in his left foot. There were a dozen buckshot pocks peppered over the hairy knoll of his back and the trail of a knife scored across his belly.” His left eye was gone, “replaced by a white glass ball two sizes small. He had a goiter under his beard. He had gout, he had the clap, blood-sugar, neuralgia and ague. Malaria. The silk handkerchief balled in his pants was blooded from the advanced consumption the doctor had just informed him he had.”
Smonk’s grotesque figure and author Tom Franklin’s descriptions, vivid to the last eschatological detail, set the tone for this curious Western, owing more to grand guignol or perhaps Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian than to a traditional Western yarn. Hovering between the farcical and the ultra-violent, Smonk, set to come out in paperback in November, tells the story of the seemingly aimless yet vicious title character starting with the bloody episode of his trial in Old Texas, Alabama in 1911. Tired of being terrorized by this savage one-eyed dwarf with a penchant for stealing other people’s wives, the townsmen have come up with a plan. As soon as he sets foot on the improvised court, they will mob him and deliver swift justice. Smonk, however, sees through their ploy and, sword and derringer in hand, slaughters his way out of town.
Franklin then introduces us to Evavangeline, an androgynous prostitute who is often mistaken for a man and is presently on the run from a caricaturesque gang of religious vigilantes known as the Christian Deputies. Their leader, the self-righteous Phail Walton, is pursuing her for allegedly engaging in homosexual acts.
The paths of all three main characters are bound to cross but in the meantime we are treated to a series of vignettes that accentuate the violent nature of both the story and the milieu it is set in. Evavangeline fends off a rape attempt and swiftly disposes of a doctor with dubious credentials who tries to take advantage of her. Smonk evades his pursuers, the last two male survivors of the Old Texas massacre, as houses are blown with dynamite and more people get killed. Walton fights both his feelings of sexual inadequacy and the constant danger of insubordination from his men.
Franklin develops the plot threads with a colorful language that seems a perfect fit for the over the top scenes he depicts. And yet the excesses do manage to backfire once it becomes evident that two thirds of the novel are nothing but a protracted setup for a revelatory ending as the characters converge in Old Texas. There we learn of the town’s hideous secret, how is it related to Smonk and in turn what are his ties to Evavangeline. The problem here is two-fold: the story’s denouement is to a large extent predictable and, in view of what the reader has been exposed to so far, one cannot help but wonder why the author did not tie-up the plot threads at least 50 pages and countless scenes of debauchery earlier.
Franklin’s previous titles include the Western novel Hell at the Breech and the short story collection Poachers, whose title story was picked by mystery fiction editor Otto Penzler for the anthology The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century. Having garnered enthusiastic recommendations from authors such as Philip Roth, Richard Ford, Dennis Lehane and Deadwood creator David Milch, Franklin’s work and Smonk in particular seemed an inviting prospect. It is, nonetheless, a mixed bag at best, its engaging and imaginative prose and ensemble of quirky characters unable to give consistency to the novel’s extremely thin plot.