Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter ~ Tom Franklin

One day when I was only about eight, my oldest Uncle had me get on my knees and bow over each time repeating a phrase

O wha
tagoo
Siam

I remember doing this until it dawned on me (they were all laughing) what I was saying as I bowed over: Oh, what a goose I am. Spending summers in Georgia with my mother’s family and visiting with her good ‘ole boy uncles, were good times nevertheless, despite the occasional humiliation. It was there that I learned to spell Mississippi in the Southern fashion

“M-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I
Crooked letter-crooked letter-I
humpback-humpback-I.”

Tom Franklin (Hell at the Breech) uses this as the epigraph for his new novel, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter – his tale of rural Mississippi life. [interestingly, whenever I write/spell the word Mississippi, I still do it with the cadence of my youth]. The vehicle for this Faulknerian story of rural/small town Mississippi life is Larry Ott. Twenty five years earlier, Larry had fallen under suspicion when a classmate of his, Cindy Walker, had gone missing, the body never having been found. His life changed forever after that, although to be sure he was always sort of a social misfit, an inveterate horror story reader and loner. Larry, lacking friendship, has always yearned for some, though without knowing why. Franklin neatly equates eating and fasting with friendship and loneliness.

Until you ate you didn’t know how hungry you were, how empty you’d become. Wallace’s visits had shown him that being lonesome was its own fast, that after going unnourished for so long, even the foulest bite could remind your body how much it needed to eat. That you could be starving and not even know it.

Now, when another young college girl, Tina Rutherford goes missing, naturally the eyes of the townsfolk turn toward Larry. It’s not long before someone seriously injures him in a shooting.

Franklin is nothing if not a taut story-teller who weaves his novel with enough twists to keep a reader coming back for more throughout. The local Constable is an old childhood friend of Larry’s. Odd for the times, since Silas Jones is an African-American, and Larry is white. But Larry needed to take his friends as they came. Silas, aka 32 (his old baseball number) has other connections to Larry as well.

Franklin spins an atmosphere as well, sometimes almost as gothic-like as the novels that Larry reads.

It wasn’t until he’d come, once, to a tree snapped cleanly in half, that he realized the cold would break them. The young ones, the old. A tree enduring another freezing night suddenly explodes at its heart, its top half toppling and swinging down, scratching the land with a horrible creak, broken in half and turning like a hanged man.

Larry Ott has his secrets, and the chief investigator, Roy French, urges him to unburden himself. This is the way to a confession in French’s opinion. But Larry has other reasons for seriously thinking about unburdening himself – if not to French, then to 32. As he thinks of Silas he considers

…how time packs new years over the old ones but how those old years are still in there, like the earliest, tightest rings centering a tree, the most hidden, enclosed in darkness and shielded from weather. But then a saw screams in and the tree topples and the circles are stricken by the sun and the sap glistens and the stump is laid open for the world to see.

Tom Franklin gets us there at a perfectly fine pace, until all is laid bare, all revealed in satisfying fashion.

 

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