Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Covered in Kudzu: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, Tom Franklin’s evocative novel, plumbs the depths of human remorse, forgiveness, and retribution.  But it’s also a crime thriller that, like the novels of Dennis Lehane, depends on emotional fireworks as much as it does firearms to keep the pages turning.  Its profoundly moving story centers around race relations, childhood memories, and missing persons—all of which coalesce in a finale that caps 272 pages of first-rate storytelling.

For such a quiet, rural place, Garfield County, Mississippi has its share of excitement for the town’s one lawman: a pot dealer’s decomposing, buzzard-pecked body has turned up in a swamp; a spiteful lover is putting rattlesnakes in mailboxes out on “White Trash Avenue,” and now the nineteen-year-old daughter of the local mill owner has disappeared.  All attention and blame for the missing woman focuses on Larry Ott, a recluse who was accused of being involved with the disappearance of another girl twenty years earlier.

Franklin paints a memorable portrait of the town’s outcast in the novel’s second paragraph:
Larry, forty-one years old and single, lived alone in rural Mississippi in his parents’ house, which was now his house, though he couldn’t bring himself to think of it that way.  He acted more like a curator, keeping the rooms clean, answering the mail and paying bills, turning on the television at the right times and smiling with the laugh tracks, eating his McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken to what the networks presented him and then sitting on his front porch as the day bled out of the trees across the field and night settled in, each different, each the same.

Lonely, haunted, and passive to the point of his undoing, Larry Ott is the Boo Radley for a new age of literature.

He spends his days at his family garage, Ottomotive Repair, which hasn’t had a customer since Larry’s father died.  Still, true to his nature as a man of habit, he shows up to work on time every day and stays until closing time.  He fills the hours with his dark memories of growing up in the small  town.

Larry’s childhood friend is now the town’s constable, but the two of them have barely spoken in the intervening years.  Silas Jones (known by everyone in town as “32” for his high school baseball jersey) drives a thirty-year-old Jeep with a clip-on light and worries as much about being a high-profile black man in the rural South town as he does about the town’s budget which is so meager Silas must stand in the middle of the street every day and direct traffic during the mill’s shift change.  Never one to shirk publicity for his role as constable, Silas contends, “Enough good PR he could be a black Buford Pusser, maybe run at sheriff himself in ten years.”

Now another local girl has disappeared, a notorious low-rent drug dealer’s body has been found in the swamp, and—as we learn in the novel’s opening chapter—Larry Ott has been shot and gravely wounded in his own home.  In the days before the attack, Larry left urgent messages on Silas’ answering machine—phone calls which went unreturned and now burden Silas with guilt.  In the course of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, he’s forced to sort out his feelings about Larry—a boyhood acquaintance with whom he was always on the most uneasiest of terms, and whose family is inextricably linked to his.  The mysteries of the past and answers for the future are slowly unpeeled as the novel goes along and culminates in a denouement that is heavy on the soap opera, but never in danger of getting too soggy or sappy.

The novel’s title derives from an old chant taught to schoolchildren learning how to spell Mississippi (“M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I”) and that points to both its distinct Southern tone and the nostalgia for the years spent as a schoolchild—which is where Larry safely dwells in his imagination most of the time.  The events which have stirred Garfield County, have also shaken loose Larry’s memories of the time he pined after a girl in high school, asked her out on a date, then was duped into faking the date so she could go meet with her secret boyfriend.  When she disappeared that night, all evidence and blame pointed to Larry and thus his days as a community pariah began with a heartbreaking jolt.  Though her body was never found and Larry never confessed, he is ostracized into a solitude filled with sitcom laugh tracks and TV dinners.

As he proved in his previous novels and his excellent short story collection, Poachers, Franklin bottles the very essence of Southern life in his details, characterizations, and dialect (he has listened close enough to know there shouldn’t be an apostrophe in “yall”).  Stay still too long with this novel and soon you’ll be covered in kudzu.  Here, for instance, is an apt description of small-town Mississippi:
Silas passed the Wal-Mart and then the arrowed sign to Fulsom’s business district.  Soon the road bottlenecked down to a two-lane and the businesses became sparse, the sidewalks cracked, sprouting weeds, buildings posted, windows and doors boarded.  He passed what used to be a post office.  He passed a clothing store that had gone so long without customers it’d briefly become a vintage clothing store without changing stock.  Building on his right was an ex-Radio Shack, windows busted or shot out and the roof fallen in so thoroughly the floor was shingled, the walls beginning to sag and buckle.

Franklin keeps the plot brisk—after a slow start where the reader must sort out the characters, the novel goes at a page-burning pace—and his writing simple but beautiful.  Of a woman standing outside in the cold, he writes, “[her] breath torn from her lips like tissues snatched from a box.”  Or this, “his mother’s wind chime jingling, delicate notes too tender to be metal, more like soft bone on wire; he’d always thought the chime sounded like a skeleton playing a guitar.”

As fine as the writing is—and it’s exceptionally fine—it’s the emotional core of this novel that makes it rise above the bland flow of all those other merely-competent novels you’ll find streaming through bookstores and libraries these days.  Franklin creates such sympathetic, accessible characters that for the brief time you’re living in this novel you hate to part with these people when it comes time to turn the last page.  I know that’s a threadbare cliché of reviewers, but in this case, I hardly know how else to describe the sadness and exhilaration I felt when I closed Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.  Franklin makes you long for a never-real world and persuades you to care about characters who never existed, except in your imagination where they are very real indeed.


  1. sounds absolutely wonderful - what a lovely review

  2. One day, I'd like to write a psychopath half as well as Tom Franklin

  3. If you come this far you probably know that on the surface this is a murder mystery. But it is so much more, it's a peek at the rural south, of friendship, of the awkwardness of growing up. A must read!