Saturday, February 23, 2013
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin: A review
I think that Franklin must have spent some time in such a place when growing up because he has got the description of it word perfect. I grew up in a similar community in northeast Mississippi and I do recognize these people. The group dynamics, the relations between the races, the everyday language of his characters all seem spot on to me.
Franklin's is a Southern Gothic mystery built around two characters, one black and one white. Silas Jones is a black constable in the town. Larry Ott is the town weirdo, known to locals as Scary Larry. But twenty-five years before, these two men's lives were intertwined in a way that will have long-term and long-delayed repercussions for each of them, as well as the community.
Larry got the moniker "Scary Larry" when he was still in high school and he had a date - his one and only one - with a local beauty. She had made the date with him, unbeknownst to Larry, in order to get him to transport her to a meeting with her real boyfriend. Larry never knew who that boyfriend was. But after he delivered her to the meeting place, the girl disappeared. She was never seen or heard from again, and Larry became a "person of interest" in her disappearance.
Larry was the geeky outsider at school. Even before the girl's disappearance, he was bullied, ostracized, and taunted. He never learned the social skills for making friends. Every night, he and his mother prayed together that God would send him just one special friend.
And for a while it seems that God has answered that prayer when Silas and his mother return to the area from Chicago and move into a cabin on the Ott farm. Larry and Silas manage to connect. They play together, explore the woods together, and Larry loans him a rifle and shows him how to shoot it. Still, the friendship has to remain a secret from the parents who would disapprove, and at school, where Silas is a star shortstop on the baseball team, he never acknowledges Larry. He ostracizes him just like everybody else. Truly, the reader's heart aches for both of these boys.
Then the tragedy of the girl's disappearance strikes and Larry becomes even further isolated. As soon as he can, he joins the army where he learns to be a mechanic like his father. Even in the army, he never fits in, and, after serving, he comes home to Chabot to a life of soul-withering isolation in a house full of Steven King and other horror novels.
Reading seems to be his only source of joy. He joins the Book-of-the-Month club and other book clubs and looks forward to the mail deliveries that relieve his boredom. Every day, he gets up and puts on a clean uniform and goes to the auto repair shop that he inherited from his father, but no customers ever come. He isn't welcome at church. He isn't welcome at the local cafe. He has no social contact except with his mother who is now in a nursing home.
Meantime, Silas has made a life for himself in Chabot. He is a respected member of the community. He has friends and a girlfriend whom he cares for and who cares for him, and he is good at his job. But there is a darker side to his life. He carries secrets which gnaw at him and weigh on his conscience.
Then, history repeats itself. The daughter of the richest family in town disappears and Scary Larry again becomes a "person of interest." The gentle weirdo is once again under siege.
As I was reading Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter and my heart was aching for Larry, I kept thinking he reminded me of another character in Southern literature, a genre which certainly contains more than its share of "monsters." Finally, it came to me - Boo Radley! Larry, in the almost complete isolation of his life, reminded me of no one so much as that other gentle weirdo, Boo Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird.
I thought Franklin did a masterful job of slowly peeling the onion, revealing the layers of connectedness between Larry and Silas. We know that these are two damaged souls, but only gradually do we learn just how damaged as the action moves back and forth between the present day and twenty-five years before. The well-crafted tale presents both a historical and psychological study and a window into the dark corners of the human soul. One can hardly ask more of a book.