August 31, 1999
by Kay Kimbrough
William Morrow, New York, 1999.
Tom Franklin's collection of short stories, POACHERS, features characters who find themselves in lower Alabama's version of the New South without roadmaps or guide books. They are lost, displaced or trapped in a world that moved into the future before they could get prepared for it. The title refers to illegal hunting or fishing, but Franklin explores other forms of poaching in these stories.
The opening story, "Grit," is a comic tale of industrial poaching at the Black Beauty Minerals plant, a surreal landscape where "Glen, the manager, felt like the captain of a ragtag spaceship that had crash-landed, a prison barge full of poachers and thieves, smugglers and assassins." Glen is correct, but he soon loses his right to the title of captain. The poachers gain control. His evil bookie nemesis, Roy, leads Glen into a life of crime. When Roy is gone, another crime captain takes his place, seizing control of Glen's non-life. Glen resigns himself to poaching in order to survive and reflects on his night job, stealing sandblasting grit from the company he manages and selling so much of it that "You'd think...the entire hull of the world was caked and corroded with rust, barnacles, and scum, and that somebody, somewhere was finally cleaning things up."
All the stories are connected by the poaching motif. "Shubuta" is about love gone bad. The narrator has recently lost his girl, and his dying uncle's wife left him for another man long ago. This complex story also features a suicide named Willie, another victim of lost love. The pain of loss is told in the language of the region, with its required wit, humor and irony. The narrator's loss leads to voyeurism, a fitting metaphor for the place of poaching in fiction since writing and reading fiction involve the thrill of imagining and discovering secrets about other lives.
"Triathlon" takes the narrator and his friend Bruce on a wild odyssey from Dauphin Island to Guntersville, where they witness the amazing sight of bats in flight from a limestone cave that banks a lake where the two young men are treading water. The narrator is going back to Mobile to face his shotgun wedding and his loss of youth and freedom. In stealing this time from the reality of his future, he gets a taste of what he is losing in the bats' profusion of motion and flight: "...and you forget to be afraid, forget whoever's with you and where, why, who you are, forget everything except now and how the sky and the air are alive enough to touch, if only you didn't need your arms to stay afloat."
"Blue Horses" is a tender tragic story of the approaching death of a man who watches an electric train move across a toy landscape, explaining that he "Never rode a train when I was a boy...Now none of 'em have cabooses." Change, time and death have caught up with him; he is facing the inescapable. One of the two friends who come to ease the dying man's death drifts off into a fantasy about a blue plastic horse in the toy world, imagining himself a cowboy hero, the man he would like to be. He is some kind of hero, but he does not know it, on a dangerous mission of mercy that he never wanted to undertake.
"The Ballad of Duane Juarez" is about another man on a mission, but this one is not heroic. Duane poaches on his brother who poaches on his rich wife. Duane has lost his job and his wife; his reactions are funny, those of another comic loser, until he carries out the mission his brother assigns him.
"A Tiny History" is a classic drama of young married men wishing they could trade wives, trespass, poach. In "Dinosaurs" a man wants to give, not take. He trades his integrity of an inspector of leaking gas tanks for a stuffed rhinoceros, a surreal representative of death, in an effort to recapture his father. His effort is a futile gesture, a gesture that is too late, just as his job of saving the earth from contamination is too late.
"Instinct" is the darkest story, a skillful portrayal of a woman-hating psycho completed in a few pages. The surprise ending turns the beginning upside down, the simple facts taking on entirely different meanings. "Alaska” relates the dreams of the narrator of "Triathlon" and "A Tiny Story” and his old friend Bruce, young dreams of travel, adventure, romance, freedom and transformation into heroes. Most of the verbs in "Alaska" are in the conditional mood, and Alaska is always in the future, always a dream. "Our aim was this: Alaska," the story opens. It ends, "...remembering Alaska, waiting for us."
The title story is the grand finale. Here are the real poachers, the Gates brothers, living off the land, lawless, fearless, almost mute. The three brothers move through the woods, the swamp and the river like a pack of dogs, communicating without words, killing without remorse and unable to change, like dogs following their instincts. They are friendless except for a local saint, Kirxy, who is anything but a poacher, and woman named Esther who is anything but a saint. Both see some humanity in the boys. Kirxy remembers how they listened to the books his late wife read them, seeing potential in their love of stories, their attentiveness to language. Esther's appreciation is of a lower kind, based on her own needs and loneliness. Into this world apart, from the past, comes Frank David, a game warden intent on avenging the death of the previous game warden. He is a match for the Gates: he knows their ways because their ways were his until he found religion and law. He hunts the Gates with the same skill and determination the Gates use in their pursuit of game. He is a poacher of men. Kirxy, the truly good man, guides the reader through the story, loving the land and the people, giving instead of taking.
Franklin writes of his love for this land in his introduction: "And coming back like this to hunt for details for my stories feels a bit like poaching on land that used to be mine. But I've never lost the need to tell of my Alabama, to reveal it lush and green and full of death. So I return, knowing what I've learned. I come back, where life is slow dying, and I poach for stories."