Wednesday, December 7, 2011


By Tom Franklin
Harper Collins, 192 pgs
From my personal library
Rating: Read This Book!

Poachers is a collection of 11 short stories. I have gone back to my roots with this one. I "discovered" American regional short fiction 20 years ago and my favorite region is the south. It's all so very Gothic. Spanish moss and kudzu, Appalachia and Gulf coast, alligator and Thoroughbred, Pentecostal and voodoo priestess, plantation and slave quarter. One gets the idea that the primeval is alive and lurking in Mississippi. The juxtapositions of the South are mind-boggling and Tom Franklin captures them superbly. Mr. Franklin is a talent on the same plane with the late Larry Brown, and both are heirs to Faulkner.

These are my favorite stories:

The Ballad of Duane Juarez is about the dissolution of an older brother who has to rely on (or mooch off of) his younger brother's life. These are some of the things Duane accepts and/or takes from his brother Ned: food, drink, rent, Playboy, girls, jobs, electricity. According to Duane he married for love and Ned married for money. Duane's wife divorced him and so the love went away and their was still no money. Ned is still married and still has money so he tries to "help" his big brother Duane. I get the idea Ned sort of likes this arrangement. He doesn't seem to be intentionally belittling, but his off-hand remarks could be seen as casually cruel, as he tosses crumbs to Duane in the form of day-labor assignments. Some of the things that Ned has Duane do for him include: mowing grass, raking leaves, washing his car, cleaning houses, killing cats. Yep, killing cats. Ned's wife Nina feeds a bunch of stray cats and they won't go away. Ned hates the cats and pays Duane to capture them, take them off and shoot them. We find out how Duane feels about the people in his life when he takes the cats off to be summarily executed and starts naming them. This story is not a story with a plot, but is a character study. We get to peer around inside Duane's head, and he needs a good therapist.

Poachers is the story of the 3 Gates brothers living in the backwoods of Alabama, who make their living as poachers. There's apparently nothing they won't kill and sell. This includes: fish, deer, dogs, rabbits, possums, turtle, fox. The brothers sell and barter (sometimes for moonshine, white lightnin, bad idea) the fruits of their hunt to regular customers in a netherworld that you have to see to believe, some of these places are so isolated they are accessible only by river; no electricity, no phone, no plumbing. The boys have been on their own since their father shot himself when the youngest brother was 12. He was despairing his wife's death in childbirth and the stillborn baby. So he buried them in the backyard. There is no law here.

The boys live in a ragged cabin deep in the woods; have never gone to school; can't read or write; don't bathe; eat with their hands; have no social skills; never go to town. What they understand is the instinctual. This is Deliverance, second generation. This is the sort of thing that makes the hair on my neck stand at attention. You know what creeps me out? These people have to introduce new blood every so often and so what woman do they kidnap for their nefarious purposes? Eew.

OK, anyway, the Gateses seem to be successfully skirting the edge of the cliff until the day they murder a game warden who caught them with a telephone rig in the bottom of their boat and tried to arrest them. Then they fell off the cliff. A few days later the body of the game warden is found. The sheriff calls the state wildlife commission to report the death and talks to a legendary warden by the name of Frank David, who is ascribed supernatural powers, happens to have been the dead warden's teacher and mentor. When the Gates brothers start showing up dead one by one, the sheriff knows Warden David's handiwork but cannot build a case, prove anything or even find him. 

An old shopkeeper named Kirxy had known their father and has spent years trying to help the brothers. He tried to house them, feed them, send them to school, to no avail. He had to finally return them to their cabin because his wife was as freaked out as I am, see? So when Kent, the oldest brother, and Neil, the middle brother, are murdered Kirxy tries to protect Dan, the youngest. We are given a few hints in the story that it may yet be possible to save Dan. Maybe.

So please read this book. It will not appeal to everyone but I'd like to encourage you to venture out of your comfort zone. I love the short story form but I didn't know that until I ventured.

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