William Morrow, $25.99, 320 pages
It’s been eight years since Hurricane Katrina, yet novels (and movies and TV shows) about the catastrophe keep bubbling up. Writers ranging from Dave Eggers to Charlaine Harris have waded willfully into the dirty bayou floodwaters. No doubt more are busy writing.
“The Tilted World,” the meandering disaster novel from married authors Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin, deals with a different calamity, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Though Katrina isn’t mentioned by name, parallels between the two catastrophes are hard to miss.
On Good Friday of 1927, the swollen Mississippi River burst the levees near Greenville, Miss., eventually spilling enough water to cover an area equivalent to Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont combined. The world’s fourth largest flood on record disproportionally uprooted African-Americans in the Delta, who fled the region — and the Republican party — in droves. It also helped Herbert Hoover land the White House the following year. No wonder the flood is still considered one of the most destructive events in U.S. history.
Hoover makes an awkward appearance in the first chapter of “The Tilted World,” which saves the Great Flood as a set piece for its climax. Fennelly and Franklin place the action in the fictional town of Hobnob Landing, Miss., population 3,244, a riverfront trading post on edge as the water rises.
Dixie Clay, the book’s feisty 22-year-old protagonist, has become a backwoods bootlegger out of necessity rather than choice. Her marriage to the suave but duplicitous Jesse Swan Holliver is drowning in grief over the death of their newborn son. Dixie Clay (always jarringly referenced by both names) passes her nights in a camouflaged still brewing up Black Lightning, which Jesse sells to speakeasies, cathouses and even cops.
As the spring’s “terrifying and tedious” storms test Hobnob’s two-story levee, a pair of federal revenue agents arrive on a top-secret murder case assigned by Hoover himself. Ted Ingersoll and Ham Johnson inadvertently happen upon an orphaned infant at a robbery scene, leading to comical complications for an already stressed exposition.
Making matters more twisted, news comes of an indecent proposal from wealthy New Orleans bankers. They’ve offered to pay Hobnob’s residents to evacuate and flood the town in hopes of alleviating damage downriver. Dixie Clay counts herself among the Stickers rejecting the bid, but a clandestine plot to bomb the levee adds danger and intrigue to an increasingly murky stew of storylines.
“The Tilted World” overflows with dazzling, sometimes beguiling details: Mason jars filled with moonshine; the drudgery of homemade dresses; hand-skinned skunk furs; the risks of distillery explosions. The authors apparently spent years poring over antique catalogs to get the name brands, prices and amusing peculiarities of this era just right. Equally meticulous, though less engaging, is the meteorological and flood reportage, which bogs down the action in muddy tracks. The novel wears its research like water wings: needed to keep things afloat, but impossible to ignore.
It’s an impressive feat for any two writers to collaborate on a project as complex as a historical novel, let alone a husband and wife who already work together. Fennelly directs the MFA program at the University of Mississippi, where Franklin is a writer-in-residence. The novel is an expansion of their 2010 short story, “What His Hands Had Been Waiting For.”
The challenges of joint authorship can’t entirely justify the book’s tonal discrepancies, especially obvious in early chapters. At times, the narrative settles into a close third-person voice, employing the rural vernacular of its ruffian cast in delightful sentences such as, “Christ Lord, this baby was loud,” or, “He looked like someone used to being looked at.”
Elsewhere, though, the authors jettison free indirect style for language that’s more self-conscious and sophisticated, describing a laundry line as “hyphenated,” or rows of corn as “blown into italics.” These are a poet’s words, not a whiskey peddler’s, and at odds with prose driven primarily by plot.
“The Tilted World” deserves praise for its careful plotting and brash originality. Not many writers could pull off a love story between a revenuer and a bootlegger, shown here as tender and believable. At the same time, impatient readers are bound to be annoyed by the weakness for flashbacks. Like Fitzgerald’s famous boat beating against the current, this is a story borne ceaselessly into the past. Chapters keep abandoning urgent matters at hand (levee bombers, murder mystery, imminent natural disaster), favoring interminable scenes in the blues clubs of Chicago or the battlefields of France.
The Great Flood’s inevitable surge cranks up the tension in the finale, sending Ingersoll on a frantic mission to rescue Dixie Clay and a missing child. Here, finally, “The Tilted World” rushes forth with solid storytelling, but it may be too late to overcome the flotsam and jetsam left behind by earlier atmospheric indulgences.
The authors wisely resist the urge to point out how the Great Flood’s aftermath presupposed Katrina; it’s obvious enough already. In the end, “The Tilted World” speaks volumes about hope and ingenuity in times of disaster, delivering a warning that those who won’t heed history’s lessons are bound to repeat its blunders.