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/ ? Hell at the Breech by Tom Franklin William Morrow, 2003, 305 pp., $23.95 Tom Franklin's new novel, Hell at the Breech, is a tale of retribution and atonement set inAlabama in the 1890s, revivifying the Uttle-known events surrounding the bloody Mitcham Beat War. In vivid detail and clear, immediate prose, the novel chronicles a feud that erupted between the town of Grove HiU and the village of Mitcham Beat. A friendly Mitcham Beat merchant, Arch Bedsole, is murdered. Grove HUl is blamed, and Bedsole's cousin Tooch calls the men of "the beat" together to form the HeU-at-the-Breech gang. These hooded riders first terrorize theirownblackpopulationintofleeing Mitcham Beat completely and extract blood oaths from the white men of the beat, killing those who refuse to sign. Once fully organized, the gang descends on Grove Hill in a series of murderous raids. At the center of this novel stand two protagonists connected to one another by Bedsole's murder: Clarke County Sheriff Billy Waite, the man investigating the crime, and Macky Burke, the fifteen-year-old boy from Mitcham Beat who actually killed Bedsole . As the investigation unfolds, the novel foUows a variety ofviewpoints, Macky Burke's being a crucial one. Because he has accidentaUy kUled Arch Bedsole and keeps this a secret, Burke is indirectly responsible for the actions of the Hell-at-the-Breech gang and, therefore, the Mitcham Beat War itseU. By choosing to reveal the truth to the reader early in the novel through his rendering of the killing scene, Franklin makes this a story of how Burke metabolizes his own crime, rather than simply the story of a mystery for Billy Waite to solve. This gives the novel its tension and thematic resonance. After the Hell-atthe -Breech gang hangs Bit Owen, a dissenter, all are too drunk to make sure he is in fact dead. In a dramatic scene, as Burke is burying Owen, who rises from the grave stül alive, the boy spares Owen's Ufe and lets him escape. This act of mercy has its echo during the Mitcham Beat War, when BUIy Waite spares him. BUIy Waite, a Confederate veteran, has passed his years enjoying cigars and whiskey. Though he is in a long tradition of reluctant lawmen, he is not a diche. In fact, he becomes one of Franklin's most intriguing characters. WhUe Waite investigates the murders happening throughout the vülage, his trigger-happy deputy, Ardy Grant, conducts his own investigation behind Waite's back as part ofhis plan to take 174 · The Missouri Review Waite's job for himself. Grant kills innocent and guüty alike. He even goes so far as to kül the son of the judge who had earlier deputized him in order to stir Grove HiU into exacting vengeance against the village . Franklin belongs to a rising generation of Southern writers. He does not write in the baroque style that has unfortunately become associated with Southern letters. His descriptions of the Southwestern Alabama landscape in this novel are rich in detaU, but Franklin's sentences themselves are as spare as they are true. QS) How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002, 288 pp., $24 The famiUar story goes something like this: In 1996, noveUst Jonathan Franzen pubUshes an essay in Harper 's Magazine, titled "Perchance to Dream," in which he argues that the social novel is dead, and therefore Franzen, who has written two culturaUy engaged, critically praised, commercially ignored social novels, feels alienated and alone. Then, five years later, Franzen publishes The Corrections, a social novel that seUs well and becomes the Uterary event of the year when Franzen expresses his ambivalence over its selection for the Oprah Book Club. Oprah famously disinvites him from an appearance on her show ("Go back to being alienated and alone, Jonathan ," one imagines her thinking), and The Corrections goes on to sell more than two million copies in hardcover and win the National Book Award. So much for the death of the social novel. Now Franzen has followed The Corrections with a coUection of essays, How to Be Alone. Most of the thirteen pieces included...


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