The world that’s tilting refers to the Mississippi Delta in April 1927, site of one of the greatest natural catastrophes in American history.
Although the Great Flood of 1927 provides the background for the narrative, Franklin and Fennelly focus on an unusual, and perhaps implausible, love story. Revenuers Ham Johnson and Ted Ingersoll are sent to Mississippi not only to track down the makers of some of the finest moonshine in the South, but also to solve the mystery of who was responsible for the recent deaths of two other revenuers. Along the way, they find an orphaned baby, and they don’t quite know what to do with this unforeseen state of affairs, but Ted had been an orphan himself and so takes pity on the newborn. When he asks around the town of Hobnob Landing, he finds out about Dixie Clay Holliver, a young mother who had recently lost a child to scarlet fever, so he shows up to give her the orphaned infant, whom she names Willy. It turns out Dixie Clay is married to one of the biggest moonshiners in the state, the egregious Jesse Holliver, a womanizing, self-centered and viciously ambitious man. Because Dixie Clay has shown great business acumen, she’s taken over her husband’s moonshining operation, as Jesse has other irons in the fire. A romance develops between Ted and Dixie Clay, abetted in part by Jesse’s abusiveness toward his wife and his indifference to the child. Jesse begins to prepare for a new life, one that involves his blowing up a levee with dynamite and drowning the town, the townspeople, Ted, and even his wife and child.
Originally conceived as a short story, the book shows signs of attenuation in its expansion to novel length.