Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
William Morrow, $24.99, 320 pages
By Gina Webb
It’s been a busy week in rural Chabot, Miss. A teenage girl has gone missing and the police have a “person of interest.” The badly decomposed body of a local drug dealer surfaces in a swamp. A diamondback rattler turns up in somebody’s mailbox, not by accident. There’s a killer on the loose, too, last seen wearing a Halloween zombie mask.
On the whole, not much excitement for Alabama author Tom Franklin compared to his previous books, where nonstop carnage has been the norm.
His first story collection, “Poachers” (2000), acquainted us with a cast of manly deer hunters, fishermen and hard drinkers, either on the brink of bloodshed or at least out to cheat each other blind. The murderous posse in “Hell at the Breech” (2003) blasted from one savage killing to another as a deadly feud gripped a post-Civil War hamlet. The eponymous antihero in “Smonk” (2007), a syphilitic, one-eyed dwarf, terrorized a community until its residents united to machine-gun him to smithereens. In all these, the writing was irresistible — as fierce and unrelenting as the characters themselves, and abubble with a bloody gurgle of gallows humor.
In his latest novel, “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, ” Franklin forgoes violence for a restrained, unhurried story about friendship, secrets and loneliness, set in rural Mississippi and spanning the late 1970s to the present day. In taut but measured prose, with luminous passages and pitch-perfect Southern dialogue, he spins the tale of a reclusive small-town mechanic and the childhood friend who knows him better than anyone else.
Larry Ott, 41, white and single, still lives in his parents’ home, still goes to work each day at the family garage. But none of the townspeople will associate with him, nobody will bring their car in for repairs. They’re pretty sure he killed that girl who disappeared in 1982, the same night Larry took her out on his first and only date. It was the last time anyone saw her.
They call him Scary Larry.
No body was ever found, so Larry was never charged. Now, he is the prime suspect again. His only ally is Silas “32″ Jones, the town’s African-American constable who, worried that the locals may “go vigilante” on Larry, steps in to prove Larry’s innocence.
A former college baseball star, Silas met Larry when the two attended eighth grade together. The two teens never associated in public —black and white didn’t mix in 1970s Chabot, even in the same school — but out in the woods, near the hunting cabin where Silas lived with his mother, they were free to play cowboys and Indians, fish in the creek, and share their love of Stephen King books. Until the day Larry’s racist father discovered them together, when the events that followed ensured the two would never play together again — or even speak to one another for decades to come.
But were they ever really friends, or just two misfits thrown together by fate? And why is Silas so sure Larry “doesn’t have it in him” to abduct a teenage girl?
Franklin divides the book between Larry and Silas, an effortless narrative shift between past and the present, and the police investigation retraces the boys’ complicated friendship, uncovering a buried secret that may account for their unexpected bond. Silas and Larry’s relationships with each other and with other characters — Silas’ shrewdly perceptive girlfriend, Angie; Larry’s heartless father; an affable misfit named Wallace — reveal just how much has gone missing in Chabot during the past 25 years.
Part coming-of-age story and part mystery, “Crooked Letter” keeps the suspense high, reminding us that a damaged soul can go either way. Though Larry eagerly awaits his book-of-the-month-club selection and dutifully feeds his mother’s chickens each morning, he has long felt helpless and tormented by town folk (”midnight teenagers banging by and turning around in his yard, hooting and throwing beer bottles or firecrackers”). Franklin lets us wonder why, when Larry looks into “a monster’s face, ” he can see “something familiar in there.”
Franklin, who grew up in rural Dickinson, Ala., has admitted to growing up as a square peg in a round family of macho sportsmen who expected him to put aside his beloved Tarzan and Stephen King books (and G.I. Joe’s!) and join them — or risk a fate worse than death: being called a sissy. Thankfully, “Crooked Letter” returns to that long-lost boy in his many forms, and combines his story with an illuminating look at an all-too-human community during a time when racism and prejudice made monsters out of even the most familiar faces.