That’s the start of Tom Franklin’s 2003 masterpiece, Hell at the Breech. It’s a gritty historical work of country noir, a fictionalization of turn-of-the-nineteenth-century events in Mitcham Beat, Alabama, when town folk and country folk went to war in a long-simmering feud created by a festering culture of poverty and violence. Franklin brings to life a climate so violent that two young brothers, Will and Macky Burke, turn to highway robbery as a kind of game. The game goes terribly wrong when an old pistol goes off in one of the brothers’ hands, killing a candidate for political reform. The candidate’s less privileged brother, Tooch Bedsole, uses the killing to motivate the creation of a violent gang that threatens and attacks neighbors who refuse to join them and ultimately goes to murderous war against the bankers and others who have kept them oppressed through impossible sharecropping demands and foreclosures.
It’s no mistake that Franklin is a resident of Oxford,
Mississippi, as he is clearly a literary heir to that
town’s most celebrated resident, William Faulkner.
It’s no mistake that Franklin is a resident of Oxford, Mississippi, as he is clearly a literary heir to that town’s most celebrated resident, William Faulkner. His work is also akin to that of Cormac McCarthy, Larry Brown, Flannery O’Connor or other contemporary writers like Daniel Woodrell, Donald Ray Pollock, or Joe R. Lansdale. Franklin also has a deft touch with his hard luck characters, both the sympathetic ones like the aging Sheriff Billy Waite and the scramble-brained boy Mack Burke, and his clearest villains, the psychopathic Ardy Grant and Tooch Bedsole, who carries a chip on his shoulder so large that it threatens to crush them all. All of them have been wronged, and in a southern culture of drink, violence, and class and race hatred, the price of their retributions must be enormous.
This novel won’t appeal to more gentle book groups, but those who can stomach the violence and face the fear of the dark country nights will be rewarded with a powerful book.
If you enjoy Hell at the Breech, don’t hesitate to continue with Franklin’s other work, the debut story collection Poachers; the race-driven mystery thriller Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter; the 1927 Mississippi Flood-set The Tilted World, a collaboration with his wife Beth Ann Fennelly; or another horrifying piece of Alabama history captured in Smonk.