The Tilted World

  • Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly
  • William Morrow
  • 320 pp.
  • Reviewed by Jud Ashman
  • December 27, 2013

A historic flood washes with muddy resonance through a dangerous cat-and-mouse game between bootleggers and federal agents during Prohibition.

“If it keeps on rainin,’ levee’s gonna break.” 

So sang Led Zeppelin in its 1971 remake of an old blues tune about a now largely-forgotten calamitous event, the Great Flood of 1927. 

The Great Flood stands as the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States, and it provides fertile ground — both historically and thematically — as the backdrop for The Tilted World, a rich new novel from husband-wife author team Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly.

On the surface, The Tilted World is sort of an old-time crime story, a dangerous cat-and-mouse game between bootleggers and federal agents during Prohibition. But there is roiling, muddy water at its core; falling from the sky, overflowing from the river, destroying, cleansing, casting away sin and rejuvenating.

As the story opens, the river is already swollen; it had rained for months. “[T]hey’d all forgotten the sound of not-rain, the way they’d forgotten the smell of not-rot. No, they didn’t smell it, none of them, not the fetid mud, the festering crawfish mounds, the bloated cow washed down from Greenville and caught in the bight, no, deeper, inalienable: their own flesh rotting.  Beneath their sodden boots, the webbing of their toes scummy white and peeling in layers.”

The setting is Hobnob, a small fictitious town along the banks of the river where Dixie Clay and her husband, Jessie Holliver, live and enjoy the spoils that come from being the region’s most successful bootleggers. It’s probably more accurate to say that Jessie enjoys the spoils, as Dixie is too distraught over the death of her infant son two years earlier to enjoy much of anything — or to focus on the fact that she’s in a bad marriage. Either way, however, the feds are on to both of them. 

In the prologue, Dixie approaches their home to find her husband handcuffed and in the custody of two agents — “revenuers” as they were known at the time. Using her wits, she is able to create an opening for Jessie to turn the tables, at which point he marches the agents — at gunpoint — through the slop, ostensibly into town, although they’re never heard from again. 

Two weeks later, a couple of replacement agents, Ham Johnson and Ted Ingersoll, arrive on the sodden scene. They have been commissioned by Herbert Hoover (then Secretary of Commerce) not only to enforce the Volstead Act but also to find out what happened to their predecessors. Ominously, their first stop is a general store, where they happen upon the aftermath of a deadly shootout between looters and the store manager. Amid the wreckage and the bodies is a newly-orphaned infant. Ingersoll, the more soulful of the two agents, having grown up as an orphan himself, decides to take the baby and find him a decent home.

Ingersoll is referred to a woman whose heartbreak over her lost son is well known around town, Dixie Clay. Dixie, a character of spunk and sass — and while not formally educated, overflowing with home-grown smarts — doesn’t know what to make of the strange man showing up at her door. She reacts with considerable inhospitality. However, she’s quickly won over by the prospect of raising this new baby as her own, and consents to take him. Ingersoll, no stranger to looking for love in all the wrong places, finds himself smitten. 

Only later does he learn that, in a painful and morally-compromising twist, he not only has fallen head-over-heels for the one of the bootleggers they’re after but, even worse, has given her the baby.

Meanwhile, it doesn’t take long for the agents to come across Jessie. Brash and ambitious, Jessie is the sort of criminal who hides in plain sight and keeps close tabs on his adversaries. And, while he can be quite a charmer, he has a psychotic streak, which the townspeople tolerate because most of them, including law enforcement, are either his clientele or on his payroll. He proves to be a crafty foil.

Throughout the book, as the story plays out, the rain is ever-present, pounding tin roofs like marbles from the sky, with the waves of the river rising against the levees in concert with the narrative tension, on the way to its catastrophic climax on Good Friday. It’s not difficult at all to see this story in the biblical sense, with a flood from the heavens to wash away a town that’s gone too far in the direction of Gomorrah.

And when that catastrophe strikes, you may think of the next lyric in that Zeppelin song: “When the levee breaks, I’ll have no place to stay.”

The Tilted World invites you on a drenched, muddy slog along the banks of the Mississippi. If you like a little gumbo and blues — and history — with your literary fiction, slip on the galoshes and get ready for a rich journey.

Jud Ashman is the founder and chair of the Gaithersburg Book Festival, one of the D.C. area’s
premier literary events, and an occasional reviewer for the Washington
Independent Review of Books. Follow Jud on Twitter at @judashman.

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