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Smonk, Severance uncover dark side of Decatur Book Festival

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The Decatur Book Festival sounds like an almost suspiciously wholesome literary affair. The first celebration of books and authors in comfortable, walkable downtown Decatur features a book fair, cooking demonstrations and plenty of events for kids, including an opening parade featuring the Cat in the Hat and 100 kazoos.

Though the event features more than 100 authors and songwriters, its reach extends to more than Southern gentility. Two books being launched at the event are as violent and morbid as anything you could find between two covers. Tom Franklin's novel Smonk and Robert Olen Butler's collection of poetic stories Severance all but reek of death, but in drastically dissimilar ways, both books provide unexpected affirmations of life.

Eugene Oregon Smonk, the antiheroic title character of Tom Franklin's blood-drenched book (William Morrow, $23.95, 252 pp.), clomps into view like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse walking on two feet. Smonk roams across the backroads of early 20th-century Alabama as if he was one of those legendary outlaws so mean he could shoot a man just for snoring. Murderous, crafty, simian-shaped, riddled with diseases and yet still an incorrigible ladies' man, Smonk emerges as the year's most original fictional creation. You'd never want to meet him in real life, but it's thrilling to discover him on the page.

Though set in the Deep South, the book shares the pungent Old West texture of "Deadwood," and that's no coincidence: Franklin partly researched the book by spending a couple of days on the set of HBO's foul-mouthed Western. Smonk also draws inspiration from William Faulkner's delirious treatments of rural Mississippi and Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic Westerns like Blood Meridian. The book's depiction of drought-ravaged Alabama, particularly the sinister town of Old Texas, echoes with desolate poetry: "They followed his eyes uphill to a dim shack with a skeletal woman in a slip smudged against the wood like a wraith, her eyes black as snakeholes."

For all of Smonk's horrific details, the novel very nearly qualifies as a comedy, albeit an unspeakably dark and earthy one. Franklin provokes guilty laughs with situations involving almost any conceivable bodily discharge, as well as pratfalls more likely to involve pools of blood than banana peels. Smonk holds sway over the book like the devil rules Hell, but Franklin also follows such memorable personalities as a savvy prostitute named Evavangeline, a tender-footed Christian deputy, an unfortunate, vengeful bailiff and a horny young boy. Despite the populace's racist, blasphemous and sexually brutal ways, Franklin holds out a little generosity to his characters -- well, a couple of them -- and Smonk's sprawling, scabrous narrative has the scope of an epic folktale. (Tom Franklin will speak at noon Sunday at the Lenz Stage of Decatur's City Hall.)

Depending on your fondness for Robert Olen Butler's head-spinning premise, Severance (Chronicle Books, $22.95, 263 pp.) will either refute or confirm the notion that publishing has no new ideas. Butler, a Pulitzer Prize winner for A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain (speaking at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Decatur Conference Center's Scottie Stage), starts with two theories: that we speak at 160 words a minute "in a heightened state of emotion," and that a decapitated human head remains conscious for 90 seconds. Consequently, Severance presents 62 stories, each 240 words, all from the point of view of the suddenly bodiless.

Butler's book qualifies as a kind of imaginary oral history of lopping through the ages. Beginning in 40,000 B.C. with a cave man eaten by a saber-toothed tiger, it ends in 2008 with the author himself, who will apparently be cut off at the neck by an elevator. Across the years, the heads converse with each other, after a fashion. Butler groups the victims of Henry VIII, including his ill-fated wives and Thomas More; numerous guillotine victims following the French revolution; deaths from all religious viewpoints in modern-day religious struggles; and even St. George and the dragon, each of whom (separately) lost his noggin.

Butler seldom lingers on the details of execution or monologues along the lines of "Where's the rest of me?". Instead, the heads typically flash back, in staccato, stream-of-consciousness prose, to defining moments of their lives. A systems analyst killed in the Sept. 11 World Trade Center collapse movingly recalls such lovely highlights as her wedding and the birth of her child. Sir Walter Raleigh recounts a night of passion with Queen Elizabeth, culminating in a post-coital smoke of tobacco recently imported from the new Virginia colony. John the Baptist remembers his first meeting and baptism of Jesus Christ with a borderline homoerotic sensuality.

In both freak accidents and executions, beheadings provide a kind of network of severed connections across the ages, and the book evokes Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology, only moving across time and space instead of a single town's cemetery. Severance's conceit ultimately feels too contrived, putting too many limitations on Butler's unmistakably active imagination. Severance nevertheless reveals some unexpected wit, such as the last thoughts of a chicken before a Sunday dinner, and numerous touching meditations on the preciousness of human existence at its final moments. Like Smonk, Severance forces you to gaze upon some of the world's worst extremities, then look up from the page to realize that it's good to be alive.

For more information on the Decatur Book Festival, visit www.decaturbookfestival.com.

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