Thursday, November 24, 2011

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
Author: Tom Franklin
William Morrow Books, 2011 (reprint)
304 pages

As a kid growing up in the rural American South, I learned how to spell Mississippi the M-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I-humpback-humpback-I way -- so I knew upon seeing the title of this book that it had a Mississippi connection. Sure enough, I was transported to a small town and rural community in the southeastern part of that state, and into the lives of two men. Silas Jones -- known as "32" -- is black, with a past he's still trying to figure out. Larry Ott is white, a lonely mechanic with no customers . . . or friends.

Many years ago, 32 and Larry were secret friends -- it had to be that way for a variety of reasons. Then one night Larry took a girl out on a date, and she never made it back home. Although no evidence was found, everyone assumed foul play on the part of Larry, and since then he's lived his life in sad isolation, ostracized by everyone. 32 was the local baseball star who left town seeking glory, only to blow out his arm and return years later as the town constable.

In the present day: When the daughter of the richest man in town disappears, everyone thinks Larry had something to do with it. But then Larry gets shot in the chest at close range, and it's not quite clear whether someone shot him, or whether he shot himself -- perhaps out of guilt? As 32 investigates, the story moves back and forth in time. We learn how as a child 32 and his single mother came to Mississippi from Chicago, and the rather odd circumstances under which he and Larry first met. Larry was always a little "different" -- while other boys liked to hunt, fish, and play sports, he preferred reading Stephen King novels. Because of this, it wasn't all that hard for 32 to deny their friendship. Yet 32 doesn't think Larry had anything to do with the disappearance of either girl.

You won't have to wait until the end of the story to find out whodunnit, nor will you have to wait to find out the other big surprise (yes, there is another one) in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter seems like a crime novel, but it's really much more than that. The intertwined stories of the men, from their two vastly different perspectives, is compelling, and the writing is exquisite. I've read online that some people are comparing this book to The Help and even To Kill a Mockingbird. There's a strong sense of place that pulls you in from the first few sentences. Some people have complained in their reviews that the prose is a little overdone -- for example, in the opening sections when Larry's doing his farm chores. But I could totally relate to the mundane, everyday activities such as feeding the chickens and driving the tractor -- based on my own farm experiences. I've seen the result of trees being cut and companies closing and jobs being lost, and the long term effect that has on the psyche of a small community. I know people like 32 and Larry and many of the secondary characters. I went to school with them. I get them. I am them.

Fortunately, there's an undercurrent of hope and plenty of opportunity for redemption in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. That may be why I loved it so much, and why I didn't quite want it to end when it did.

In short, I think Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a fine example of contemporary literature. It's my favorite fiction read of 2011 by an American author, and IMHO, is highly deserving of every accolade and award that it gets. I'm hoping that someone out there in Hollywood-land will find it, because it's got terrific movie potential. Anybody?