Sunday, August 8, 2010

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

One of the great pleasures of this year is discovering a few authors I haven’t read before. Tom Franklin is one of these. I can’t believe I somehow overlooked this writer. He is everything one hopes for in a writer, especially a Southern writer: an unerring ear for dialogue, compassion, a poetic sense of the absurd, and courage. Above all courage. The power of this little book just stunned me.

The story is just heartbreaking. An awkward little boy, dorky and friendless, meets a black boy and they become uneasy friends. Later, the boy lands a date with the sexiest girl in high school. He is the last person to see her alive. Her body is never found and the lonely little boy grows into a lonely man, a pariah in his small, southern town. Treated with so much contempt that he is grateful when a creepy little admirer, who is sure he murdered the girl, starts hanging around Not much of a friend, but a friend.

Now it’s twenty years later, and Larry the loner, and Silas the black man, who is now the local constable, cross paths again when another girl goes missing. And Larry is the first person who is suspected. Betrayal, old secrets, friendship and the simple needs of the human heart are all laid bare as the story of what happened twenty years ago emerges. The story is both brutal and unutterably sad, as a sad as a wasted life. Larry has accepted his lot with such stoicism, the same uncritical acceptance of his father’s sadistic cruelty towards him, or the other children’s unthinking mockery, or Silas’ betrayal. The only innocent in the story is the most harshly treated, as is so often the case in Southern literature.

Tom Franklin is one of the few writers I know that can so perfectly capture a true Southern accent (Rick Bragg anyone?). As a Southerner, I know. And he is dead on. It’s not the Scarlett O’Hara Antebellum Southern. This is true redneck cracker-speak. And it’s essential to these narrow-minded; small-town; easily-led; prejudiced; malevolent hicks. And at the same time, there is great poetry in this book. Franklin creates a perfect sense of time and atmosphere.

Beautifully written, cleverly plotted, Mr. Franklin shows us again why writing is an art, not a science. I highly recommend Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. The redemption at the conclusion of the book is all the sweeter for the outrage one feels at the harm done Larry. The book has a lot to say about the way we treat those on the outskirts of life, and our prejudices. The message is a good one, and delivered by a master.

Publisher: William Morrow (October 5, 2010)
IBSN-13: 978-0060594664

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