‘Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter’ transcends place, genre
After a friend read a draft of Tom Franklin’s new novel, the reaction was immediate: The reader thought the main character, Larry Ott, bore a striking resemblance to Franklin. Both are obsessed with Stephen King novels and both have father’s who were mechanics.
Franklin eventually realized the book was autobiographical in surprising ways.
“I began listing the things that Larry and I had in common,” Franklin says. “It was alarming; I began to wonder why so much autobiography. Even Larry’s first date was like my first date.”
That incident — Ott’s (and Franklin’s) plans to go to a drive-in with a girl are thwarted when he finds out she’s using him as cover to meet another boy — is one of the pivotal scenes in “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter,” Franklin’s third novel, and his first based in contemporary times.
His previous books, “Hell at the Breech” and “Smonk,” were set respectively in the late 19th and early 20th century in rural Alabama. What “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter” shares with these titles is a keen sense of place. The new novel (the title refers to how children in the South are taught to spell the state: M-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I … ) is set in Chabot, a small Mississippi hamlet fallen upon hard times. The only steady employment is by way of a nearby logging company. The town has a small diner and an old school bus converted into a bar. The nearest ATM is 11 miles to the north.
“A dying place can be very fertile, if you will, in a certain way,” Franklin says. “The people who live there are there because they choose to be, or are there because they’re trapped. People who choose to be in these places because they’re not going anywhere … there’s nothing to do but turn to drugs, making them or using them. But there’s still something of the past about it, because it’s so rural.”
Silas “32” Jones is one of the few who leaves Chabot, then returns to become a constable. His reasons are somewhat murky, even to himself, and in the novel he’s essentially a counterpoint to Larry Ott. Silas is popular, still living off his exploits as a star on the high-school baseball team, where he wore No. 32. Larry is an outcast, friendless, since that date in high school.
Whyâ¢ Larry’s so-called date vanished that night without a trace. There was never any physical evidence linking him to her disappearance, but he’s been shunned ever since, dropping out of high school, going away to the Army, returning home to a solitary life when his father dies and his mother’s health fails. He’s reduced to selling his family’s land to the logging company because no one except travelers passing through visits his auto-repair shop
Franklin was able to tap into his own adolescent angst to portray Larry’s alienation.
“I was a lonely kid,” he says. “I was desperate for a girlfriend. At 16, I felt a loneliness that was so strong that I was able to draw upon it (for the story). It wasn’t even sexual, it was an aching for someone to be with.”
When he’s a child, Larry’s mother prays that her son finds a friend. He does, but it’s not the sort of friend that his parents would condone. Larry and Silas, who is black and lives nearby in a shack on the family property, forge a discreet friendship, hunting, fishing and traipsing through the countryside. Even though their friendship is short-lived, it is something that Larry holds onto for the rest of his life, and that Silas eventually is forced to acknowledge as an adult.
Franklin, who attended mostly black middle and high schools after being in a predominately white elementary school, says he wasn’t preoccupied by race during his teenaged years. But as an adult, he can now see how his empathetic tendencies, his revulsion to discrimination based on race, were forged.
“As a kid, it was just how it was,” he says. “I didn’t have a lot to compare it to. I grew up in rural Alabama, and there were as many or more black people than white people. That seemed typical to me. … I think our upbringing shapes us in ways we don’t even feel until we get older.”
Tom Franklin’s ‘Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter’ pulls off a literary daily double: It’s a compelling mystery and a novel that transcends genre. The story — a man is ostracized in a community because he’s the last person seen with a girl who disappears — is enhanced by two finely wrought characters, Larry Ott and Silas ’32’ Jones, who remain indelibly etched in a reader’s consciousness long after the final page is turned.
— Rege Behe