I have been a fan of Tom Franklin’s work since “Poachers,” both the work of short fiction and the collection of short fiction that takes its title. Franklin is not a prolific writer, having forsaken quantity for quality, as evidenced by CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER, his third novel in a decade. By virtue of this book alone, it is Franklin who is worthy of newsmagazine cover treatment; Franklin for whom the bookstores should be opening at midnight, with the accompanying lines around the block; and Franklin whose work should be selected for high-profile book clubs. I am seeing some signs that I may not be alone in this opinion. A major bookseller, for example, has just selected CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER as its next “Main Selection.” More honors, both critical and commercial, are sure to follow. And it’s no wonder. His latest is a born classic.
The novel revolves around two men who were friends for a short but very pivotal time during their childhoods in the late 1970s in the rural South. Larry Ott was the son of white, working-class parents, while Silas “32” Jones was raised in a black, single-parent household, transplanted from urban Chicago to the backwoods of Chabot, Mississippi. Their brief friendship fractured, and Silas went on to become a high school baseball star while Larry was relegated to “weirdo” status as an odd duck. Larry’s status went from harmless to dangerous when he picked up a girl for a drive-in movie date, and she was never seen again. While he was not arrested for any crime associated with the girl’s disappearance, he was adjudged as guilty in everyone’s mind and condemned to lead a solitary existence.
Silas left the area for college and returns after two decades to take a job as Chabot’s constable. He goes out of his way to avoid Larry, who has spent the last 20 years running an auto repair shop that sees only the rare customer. When another young woman, the daughter of an important local business magnate, suddenly goes missing, the shadow of suspicion is once again cast upon Larry. Both men have secrets, each different from the other, that must be confronted if mercy is to be given and justice is to be done; and for such to be accomplished, the two will experience damage that neither will walk away from entirely intact. Yet there is the promise that each will emerge from their trials more complete than when they began.
CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER has a mystery at its core, but this is not a mystery or thriller novel. Rather, like all great works, it transcends any particular genre to stand on its own. One of my tests of “great literature” is whether the book in question puts me in the mind of other “classics” without mimicking or modernizing their themes. It meets that mark. One could draw a line beginning with Shakespeare --- OTHELLO specifically --- to A TALE OF TWO CITIES by Charles Dickens through SANCTUARY by William Faulkner, to TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee through NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN by Cormac McCarthy, and then on to CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER. It is not that Franklin’s newest work is specifically like any of these titles. Rather, it is the spirit he evokes through the focused delineation of his characters; the soft comedy and sharp tragedy of his dialogue; the complexity of the plot; and the issues of friendship, love, forgiveness and redemption, of what is owed and what can and cannot be repaid.
And if the journey is masterful, the conclusion is astounding, perfect in its understatement, with sentences, paragraphs and pages you will read over and over again. This is a work for the ages, an example of how the classic novel --- such a rare thing --- is properly written.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 28, 2010
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter