Books
3:44 pm
Mon February 21, 2011

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter: A Novel

In this novel, "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter" we have an exploration of the issue of race in Mississippi that certainly brings to mind the tangled family patterns, with absolute separation of the races combined with miscegenation, leading inevitably to catastrophe, that one finds in Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom" or "Go Down, Moses."

Audio ?2011 Alabama Public Radio

From the beginning of his career, with each novel, Tom Franklin has been compared by reviewers with Cormac McCarthy, William Gay and William Faulkner. There have been some good reasons for this. The raw rural violence of "Hell at the Breech," set in Clark County a hundred years ago, is similar to the mind-boggling cruelty found in Gay's fictional backwoods Tennessee. The bizarre, nearly surreal, antics of the protagonist of "Smonk" might put one in mind of early Cormac McCarthy, in books like "Child of God" or "Outer Dark." And in this novel, "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter" we have an exploration of the issue of race in Mississippi that certainly brings to mind the tangled family patterns, with absolute separation of the races combined with miscegenation, leading inevitably to catastrophe, that one finds in Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom" or "Go Down, Moses."

But Franklin has so thoroughly absorbed and assimilated these powerful writers into his own style and sensibility that these comparisons have become outdated, useless and even condescending. Franklin has achieved such an individual voice and thematic distinctiveness that from now on reviewers will be comparing new Southern novels to the works of Tom Franklin.

Franklin is an Alabamian now living and teaching in Oxford. This is his first book since the story collection "Poachers" (which won Franklin the Edgar Award) to be set in the contemporary South, and the first not set in Alabama, although Franklin readily admits that the Chabon, Mississippi, of the novel is based on his home territory, Dickinson, Alabama.

(I suppose I must pause to explain that "crooked letter, crooked letter" is part of the mnemonic device for teaching young Mississippians to spell the name of their home state. Why? I don't know.)

"Crooked Letter" is the interwoven stories of two men, one white, one black. As boys, in the 70's, they were neighbors and, for a short time, secretly friends, meeting, talking, sometimes hunting in the woods. The white boy, Larry Ott, is odd, stutters, has asthma, his father is borderline-abusive, and in his withdrawal, he immerses himself in horror fiction, especially Stephen King. His nickname at school is Scary Larry.

Silas Jones is a good-looking kid and a talented athlete. His nickname is "32," his high school baseball number. Silas, a star shortstop, will go up to Ole Miss, play ball, and become a campus cop. He is back home as the Constable of Chabon, Mississippi.

As adults, the two never speak, but then nobody speaks much to Larry since the community thinks this odd boy killed a high school girl, Cindy Walker, while they were both teenagers on a date. Larry is the town pariah, utterly ostracized, in the most cruel and thorough way imaginable. No one has spoken to him for years. Forty-one years old, Larry lives alone and eats take-out food. He owns an auto shop, Ottomotive Repair, that he took over from his father. There are no local customers, only the occasional broken-down tourist. Cindy's body was never found. Larry was never actually arrested, but his life was effectively ruined. He is the village's tribal scapegoat.

Now more than 20 years have passed and there are two new murders, and Larry is the prime suspect with Silas on the case.

"Crooked Letter" is, then, a murder mystery, part police procedural, part CSI, a thriller, and so not too much plot should be revealed.

But it is much more than that. "Crooked Letter" is literary fiction, literary art, with corpses, yes, but also a lyrical style, convincing dialogue and dead-on descriptions of place. Silas passes "a clothing store that had gone so long without customers it'd briefly become a vintage clothing store without changing stock."

Franklin shows a mastery of images and symbols. There are a zombie mask, a mailbox and a winter coat, and the discerning reader FEELS the additional meanings in these objects, without having them explained. As the murders are investigated, the secret histories of Larry and Silas, Larry's father and Silas' mother and a number of other denizens of southeast Mississippi are, layer by layer, uncovered. The characterizations are totally convincing. The plot is meticulously laid out. The characters learn painful truths about each other and themselves and it becomes clear that accepting responsibility for your own past, coming clean, making amends, is the only road to emotional health.

The novel has considerable violence, but when the violence is over, in the novel's resolution, it feels like "Oedipus Rex," with a healing, cleansing catharsis, and for Silas and Larry the future is now possible.

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