By Ron Charles
Waashington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 29, 2010; C04
CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER
By Tom Franklin
Morrow. 274 pp. $24.99
The incantatory title of Tom Franklin's terrific new novel comes from the way children in the South are taught to spell Mississippi: "M-I crooked letter crooked letter I crooked letter crooked letter I humpback humpback I." But letters aren't the only thing twisted in the rural town of Chabot, Miss., where this story of long-delayed repercussions and revelations takes place. Franklin, an Edgar-winning writer of atmospheric tales, deserves an audience to match the praise he's attracted for "Poachers," "Hell at the Breech" and "Smonk." If you're looking for a smart, thoughtful novel that sinks deep into a Southern hamlet of the American psyche, "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter" is your next book.
The opening chapter introduces us to Larry Ott, a gentle weirdo -- "Scary Larry" to the locals -- who lives his simple, strictly ritualized life in withering isolation. The fact that his house is full of books -- mostly horror novels -- does little to discourage the rumors about him. Every morning, he puts on a clean uniform and goes to his auto repair shop, hoping someone will stop in. But no one ever has, which renders "his shop more a tradition than a business." Not that such economic stagnation is uncommon in this town marked by touches of Gothic decay. The local clothing store, for instance, "had gone so long without customers it'd briefly become a vintage clothing store without changing stock."
Meanwhile, the citizens of Chabot are terrified by what might have happened to the daughter of their richest resident. Missing now for eight days, she seems a cruel echo of another young woman who vanished 25 years ago during the only date Larry Ott ever had. He knows he's a "person of interest" in regard to this new crime -- vandals and policemen have made that clear -- but, still, he doesn't expect to be shot in the chest when he arrives home.
"Crooked Letter" makes a haunting demonstration of Faulkner's claim that "the past is never dead. It's not even past." With a bullet lodged near the protagonist's heart, the story slips back to Larry's adolescence when he was a book-loving, asthmatic kid who knew too much about snakes and not nearly enough about sports. He's ostracized from his peers and taunted even by his own father: "You got it easy," the man sneers at him. "Momma's boy reading the livelong day. Watch your cartoons, play with your dolls, read your funny books. But you can't unscrew a god dang bolt to save your life, can't charge a dad blame battery."
Poor Larry has only one nightly prayer: that God might send him a friend, which, of course, is the sort of pungent desire that kids can smell a stone's throw away. But Larry has no preconceptions about who that friend might be. None of the class or race lines drawn in his newly desegregated school matter to him at all.
These childhood scenes are so painfully accurate that one suspects Franklin was not the coolest kid in eighth grade. He also gives an evocative description of the racial tension that came to such small Mississippi schools when the federal rulings finally prevailed, which sets up a fascinating contrast with the state of race relations in present-day Chabot. Now that the old economic hierarchy has collapsed, no more blacks work as nannies or cooks in white homes, and the scariest place in town is "White Trash Ave."
Even as we slowly learn of the slights, assaults and crimes that took place 25 years ago, another strand of the story pursues the investigation into Larry's shooting. The constable who takes up his case is an introspective African American named Silas Jones. Though Silas is well-liked and gainfully employed, he bears a shameful connection to Larry; both men live in the shadow of decisions they made long ago in moments of panic, and Silas, in particular, is feeling the cost of his silence, his pride, his cowardice. As he searches for the missing girl and tries to solve Larry's shooting, he's dogged by the sense that something essential is missing from him.
Franklin is a master of subtle withholding, revealing lines of culpability and sympathy in this small town one crooked letter at a time. Some sins are too late to atone for, but others aren't. I was reminded of another fine novel about the poisoned friendship between a white boy and a black boy called "Prince Edward," by Dennis McFarland, but Franklin's tale has those Southern Gothic shadows that make it darker and more unnerving. And yet, if you've grown weary of abducted-women thrillers, "Crooked Letter" offers a welcome relief. The author manages to make the women's disappearances the crux of the plot, but not the center of his story. He's a lot more interested in the collateral damage of those crimes.
Franklin first attracted attention as a short story writer, and you can see that skill in this well-crafted tale, which despite all the historical and psychological ground it covers, finishes up in a tight 272 pages. The terror of a quiet oddball is a thread-worn plot, of course, but this is a novel that spells out something else entirely.
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.