Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
Story Tom & Emma Richardson
Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (William Morrow; $24.99) is a “literary mystery novel”—a whodunit that challenges readers to piece together the lives and interconnections of two very different men, Larry Ott, a white man, and Silas “32” Jones, an African American—the first a sad, isolated man ostracized by the citizens of Chabot, Mississippi, and the other, a popular and respected town constable, a former star athlete whose nickname comes from his baseball number.
The novel begins in media res: “The Rutherford girl had been missing for eight days and Larry Ott found a monster waiting in his house.” The monster is both literal and figurative, and Larry Ott’s life story slowly moves backwards to the time 25 years ago when another girl, Cindy Walker, also went missing, then forwards to the present when Larry lies grievously wounded in his home. Larry’s community is convinced of his guilt and it has made him monstrous—a Grendel-like “terrible walker alone.” He lives physically and emotionally isolated from the community, eating solitary meals from McDonald’s and KFC, watching three network channels “at the right times,” operating a garage where none of the locals bring their cars or trucks, and checking a cell phone that has no calls except the occasional confused ramblings of his mother from a nursing home.
The reader, though, sees a side to Larry that the people of Chabot are blind to. He makes order and a kind of beauty out of the chaos of his life, acting “like a curator” of his parental home, keeping it clean, disentangling the “slender pipes” of his mother’s wind chimes, and keeping the privet cut along the “bobwire fence” by bush-hogging “twice a month from March to July” but letting the fall wildflowers grow. He demonstrates tenderness to his mother’s chickens, greeting them with “Good morning, ladies” and rigging a movable cage for them, setting it each day in a different place where they can “get fresh food.”
ER: I’ve always liked fiction that takes me to places I’ve never been before, even if those places are close to home, and I like writing that offers wonderful specificity of scene. For example, to take the chicken cage into the field, Larry revs up his father’s “Model 8-N” tractor: he “removed the burnt sardine can from the tractor’s smokestack and hung the can on its nail on the wall and climbed on.” Some of my students unlocked the mystery of the sardine can for me, as they did about why Larry’s tractor tires are “weighted with fifteen gallons of water.” The rootedness to the land that Franklin writes about is still lived by many of my students. Franklin also takes us inside the garage where even as a child Larry had “liked the shop’s rich, metallic smell, the way oil and dust caked on the floor in crud you had to scrape off with a long-handled blade, a thing he enjoyed for the progress you witnessed, the satisfaction of driving the blade under the moist scabbery and shucking it away.” I can’t help but love a character who can do good work with his hands and who also reads books from Book-of-the-Month Club and Quality Paperback Club—shelves of books, books piled high in every room of his house and in the office of his garage.
TR: Reading Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter I was reminded of Frederick Douglass’ comment about his master’s wife, that “slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me.” Ott was a victim of the community’s racism that he at crucial times felt compelled to embrace; it was a means of gaining acceptance by his white classmates and the only way the book-loving boy could find to defend himself against his father’s shallow concept of manhood. Contemporary fiction about the South is too often formulaic, following stereotypical ideas about gender roles, family (dys)functions, and race relations, usually with little art or fresh, meaningful vision. Tom Franklin achieves a rare thing: he combines a page-turning plot with rich details of scene, but more importantly, he creates characters that matter to us. The stories of Larry Ott and “32” Jones challenge our expectations and stereotypes, underscore the complexity of the human condition, remind us that wounded relationships often require a lengthy process of healing, and teach us that forgiveness and grace are difficult but necessary elements of both individual and community wholeness.