by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly; Morrow, 2013; 000 pages; $25.99.
This is a story with murder and moonshine, sandbagging and saboteurs, dynamite and deluge. A ruthless husband, a troubled uncle, a dangerous flapper, a loyal partner. A woman, married to the wrong husband, who died a little every day. A man who felt invisible.
But most of all, this is a love story.
Thus ends this riveting novel by husband and wife Franklin and Fennelly, as the “woman married to the wrong husband” imagines telling “just their story” still surrounded by the devastation of the great Mississippi flood of 1927.
Readers steeped in contemporary Southern writing will recognize the book’s authors. Beth Ann Fennelly is a poet and memoirist whose most recent book, “Great with Child,” vividly examines the many pleasures and perils of motherhood. Tom Franklin is one of the most gifted Southern writers working. His short story collection “Poachers” and his novels “Hell at the Breech,” “Smonk” and “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter” are fierce evidence of the ongoing vitality of contemporary Southern fiction.
Now these two writers, who at first glance seem to inhabit different countries, write a novel that seamlessly merges the ferocious tenderness of one with the obstinate wildness of the other.
Dixie Clay becomes infatuated with, and can’t wait to be carried off by, Jesse Holliver, “a lounge beetle and a high-pillow sharper and most likely a bootlegger and perhaps a murderer.” They marry, move to Hobnob Landing in Mississippi, and have Jacob, a son who dies of scarlet fever at 3 months old. During the days of grieving, Dixie develops into an extraordinary bootlegger known for Black Lightening, the moonshine with the “zig-zag bolt” on its label.
Then there’s Ted Ingersoll (“He seemed to have blind spots. His heart was one”) and Ham Johnson (one boot size 11, one size 12). In April of 1927, as the Great River grows more violent in the unrelenting rain, the two revenuers travel to Hobnob to investigate the disappearance of fellow agents and come across a baby, the only survivor of a violent robbery.
The novel is filled with original characters — some winningly eccentric, some horrifyingly dark — all part of the poor Southern landscape during Prohibition, all playing variations on “the blues.”
The blues subtly infuse the entire work, in fact — whether it’s a singer admonishing a suitor by saying “and you still ain’t got the blues,” a troubled uncle trying to make a place for himself, or a prisoner assembling a one-string “guitar” so he can sing the prison blues.
“The Tilted World” is, finally, a keenly drawn, lyrical, even hopeful contemplation of redemption by two extraordinarily gifted authors. To experience the haunting words of Franklin or Fennelly is always rich and satisfying. To experience both at work together is breathtaking.
Steven Whitton is an English professor at Jacksonville State University.