KWH Pick of the Week: “Alaska” by Tom Franklin, Chosen by Lucas Southworth

Posted on July 23, 2012


Knox Writers’ House Contributor’s Pick of the Week 7/23/2012

Alaska by Tom Franklin in Oxford, MS

Chosen by Lucas Southworth in Tuscaloosa, AL who says:

I moved to the Alabama from the Midwest seven years ago, and as I became acclimated to the place, one of the first things that often struck me was that nobody born there ever left. Few Southerners I met had ever planned on leaving, and far less had ever done so. Even on vacations, most had never ventured farther than Austin, Texas or Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

Romanticizing Alaska, and planning to start over there, is hardly a Southern thing. We see it all over pop culture and real life. Think: Grizzly Man, Wendy and Lucy, Into the Wild, etc. But when I first heard Tom Franklin read “Alaska,” it struck my Yankee ears as a perfect portrayal of how a Southerner might view these “other places.” Unlike the characters in the works listed above, Franklin’s characters tend to romanticize the journey rather than the destination, viewing it as money to be made, women to be seduced, happiness to be mined. And what’s interesting is that these men fantasize the rest of the country by filtering it through what is and what is not the South. As they visualize their journey, they mostly consider what they’ll be leaving behind and who they can become once they leave it. As Franklin reads further, the stories his characters tell become more and more unrealistic, more poetic, and it suddenly becomes clear that they never actually planned to leave. I think this is the moment that seems like a distinctly Southern longing accompanied by the deep fear of that longing. The Southern culture, in Alabama at least, often defines itself by its insularity, its opposition to the mainstream, but in “Alaska” Franklin shows us what I’ve suspected all along: that Southerners are hardly sedentary. Instead they have a unique and fascinating way of imagining the rest of the country and fantasizing just how they might fit into it.

I must admit that part of the reason I chose Franklin was that I just spent two days tearing through his latest book Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. I’ve always felt Franklin had a distinct and true way of rendering his home region, but I’ve come to appreciate it much more since actually living there. In his work, Franklin portrays the life and culture perfectly, capturing the little details, right down to the sweet tea and the “Yes, sir,” No, sir.” “Alaska” itself is an interesting piece for him, I think; it is a story set in the South, but only through the unraveling fantasies of places that are not. And it shows us how Southerners might envision the rest of the world “will” be like.

Franklin is also a former teacher of mine—a very good one—and I find it funny that every time I see him at AWP and shout “Hey Tom!” he remembers my name, even if he seems quite surprised that it popped into his head. 

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