Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
Now we’re really getting down to it – the top two.
This is a book that I never get tired of talking about – a good thing when talking about books is your livelihood. Here’s my never-fails plot synopsis:
Silas “32” Jones was born the son of a poor, single black mother in Chicago. When he was 13 and his mother’s boyfriend went off to prison, they moved to rural Mississippi to get a fresh start. Silas soon became friends with white, lower-middle-class Larry Ott. There seemed to be some sort of underlying familiarity between Larry’s parents and Silas’ mother, but it was never elaborated on by the adults. When they were 16, unpopular Larry went on an unprecedented date with a girl, but the girl never returned home. While there was never any proof that Larry had done anything untoward and he was never tried for any crimes, he never talked about what happened, choosing to live with the stigma of what he might have done. His friendship with Silas was shattered as a result and Silas left town to go to college. Now, nearly 25 years later, Silas has returned to tiny Chabot, Mississippi as a police constable and another girl has gone missing. The whispers about “Scary” Larry Ott have never gone away and the town assumes that he is behind the new disappearance. But Larry is lying in a coma after being attacked in his home and Silas is the only one who can clear his former friend’s name…
So what’s so special about this book that seems like a pretty straight forward crime novel? For one, I would never label it as genre fiction or a crime novel or a mystery or anything so simplistic or uninspired. As cliché as it may sound, the story is never about the perceived crime committed – although it does prove integral to uncovering the true characters of Larry and Silas. It’s more about how the people of tiny Chabot are affected by the crime’s longstanding aftermath, especially in the way they treat Larry, even if it has never been proven that he ever did anything wrong. A novel of preconceived notions, perhaps.
Above and beyond all that is Tom Franklin’s ability to somehow subtly create an amazing sentence that can impress with a quiet power and unspoken emotions. Here Larry meets Silas for the first time:
The pair of them was standing at the bend in the road by the store, a tall, thin black woman and her son, about Larry’s age, a rabbit of a boy he’d seen at school, a new kid. He wondered what they were doing here, this far out, before the store opened. Despite the cold the boy wore threadbare jeans and a white shirt and his mother a blue dress the wind curved over her figure. She wore a cloth around her hair, breath torn from her lips like tissues snatched from a box.
His father passed without stopping, Larry turning his head to watch the boy and his mother peer at them from outside.
Larry turned. “Daddy?”
“Ah dern,” said his father, jabbing the brakes. He had to back up to meet them, then he leaned past Larry on the truck’s bench seat (an army blanket placed over it by his mother) and rattled the knob and they were in in a burst of freezing air that seemed to swirl even after the woman had shut the door.
While this excerpt isn’t necessarily indicative of this, I was struck by Franklin’s command over the dialogue. It would be easy to fall into a down-home, Southern Mississippi patois when writing a novel like this, but he manages to keep any hokiness out of the way his characters speak to one another. There’s no verbal showboating here, leaving you focused more on what is left unsaid than what is.
It truly is the unspoken storylines that drive this book forward. What happened on that fateful date so long ago? What is the connection, if any, between the parents of these men? If innocent, why has Larry never tried to clear his name? This is a novel about perceptions – both by the characters within and the reader – and how those perceptions can transform as more facts are filled in. As the plot gently unfolds, you learn more and more about the connection between Larry and Silas, quietly altering your perception of who each of them are. As the story is revealed, the images you have of each of these men on the first page is inexorably different by the final sentence. Franklin almost toys with the reader, offering up early assumptions about his characters, leading us down one path, only to have the path double back ten-times over before the end. Which makes for some truly brilliant fiction and the #2 book that I read in 2010.