Reviewed by Benjamin Whitmer
There comes a moment reading Tom Franklin’s short story “Poachers” when you’re hit with the sudden realization that this isn’t the McCarthyesque parable you thought you were reading at all. That the misanthropic shambling creatures who haunt the river really aren’t creatures, that the storied game warden stalking them is just as broken as those he hunts, and, even more, that it’s not either of their stories, but that of a lonely widower with cancer who is doing all he can to live up to his own promises, even if he never quite made them.
It’s only when that realization hits that you understand exactly what Franklin has accomplished, and that it’s something even McCarthy himself was seldom capable of doing: raising fully-fleshed characters from the blasted Southern archetypes he explores. When that revelation hit me, it was one of the most thrilling moments of my reading life. It came to me during this description of the aforementioned game warden:
He was just a man who’d had a hard life and grown bitter and angry. Probably an alcoholic. A man who chose to uphold the law because breaking it was no challenge. A man with no obligation to any other men or a family. Just to himself and his job. To some goddamned game-warden code. His job was to protect the wild things the law had deemed worthy: dove, duck, owls, hawks, turkeys, alligators, squirrels, coons, and deer. But how did the Gates boys fall into the category of trash animal — wildcats or possums or armadillos, snapping turtles, snakes? Things you could kill any time, run over in your truck and not even look at in your mirror to see dying behind you? Christ. Why couldn’t Frank David see that he — more than a match for the boys — was of their breed?
If you’re anything like me, when you read a passage like that, you stand up, pour yourself a drink, stare out the window for a minute or two, and then go back to the beginning of the story and start over. It’s hard not to read it as a protest against the many works of fiction, particularly crime fiction, which would do the same, assigning their characters as either worthy animals or trash animals. As the Gates boys are revealed to us in scene after scene, we are reminded that the best noir fiction is a result of the complications of its heavily flawed and massively damaged characters; and that the Gates boys cannot be assigned as trash animals, because noir doesn’t allow that distinction.
William Faulkner once explained the writer’s job as the creation of “flesh and blood people that will stand up and cast a shadow.” Franklin has the kind of mastery of both place and character that reminds us how much of what’s given us in crime fiction is pure fantasy. In most of what hits the bookstore shelves, pure-hearted good guys bearing just enough human flaw to make them barely tolerable are pitted against the kind of bad guys who happily throttle babies for fun. It’s boy wizards and bow-toting elves for adults. That’s fine, of course, if that’s what you like. But it has nothing to do with the kind of battered and busted people who make up nearly all of real world crime.
That doesn’t mean that the Gates Boys are blameless. Nor even particularly likable. For at least one of their deeds I don’t think I myself would hesitate to gut them like one of their poached deer. But they are also comprehensible, and the broken world that created them is our own. What’s more, Franklin roots his characters’ crimes firmly in that world. He doesn’t cheapen them by assigning their transgressions to specific root causes, but you can’t imagine them inhabiting any other but the one Franklin has created for us.
Beverly Lowry wrote of Larry Brown in the New York Times, “The most compassionate of writers, Brown loves every living no-good heart he commits to paper.” As with Brown, Franklin’s compassion for his characters is palpable. None of the no-good hearts along his stretch of the Alabama river are beyond the reach of his compassion, and the force of it is as powerful as it is natural, making the story resonate in ways very few other writers will ever be able to match.
In the volume that originally contained the story, also titled Poachers, Franklin tells the reader that he is driven to write by the need to “tell of my Alabama, to reveal it, lush and green and full of death.” Reading “Poachers,” it’s hard to imagine that the state of Alabama could ask for a better chronicler. In fact, all readers, regardless of where they live, should be thankful for this need of Franklin’s. It has produced one of the finest short stories ever written.
Benjamin Whitmer is the author of Pike.