Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Review of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin (Pan, 2010)

In the small, rural town of Chabot, Mississippi, Larry Ott has been an outsider his whole life. Bullied and marginalised at school, his only friend was Silas, a black kid who lived with his single mother in a rundown shack in the woods owned by Ott's father. Silas was a rising baseball star and he and Larry have an uneasy relationship, largely confined to playing in the forest. When a local girl asks Larry for a date he sees an opportunity to join the fold. When she fails to return, Larry is suspected of abducting and murdering her. It's an accusation he can't shake free despite never confessing and there being no material evidence to link him to her disappearance. The result is that he is further ostracized. After his father dies in a drunk driving accident and his mother enters a home because of dementia, he is left to look after the land and his father's garage, living a lonely existence. Twenty years after his date vanished another local girl has disappeared and Ott is once again in the spotlight as a possible perpetrator. Having headed away after school, Silas is now back and working as the local cop. He's managed to avoid talking to Larry since the last abduction, but now their paths seem destined to cross; something Silas has his own reasons for dreading.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a slower burner of a novel that never really roars into fire, but rather sizzles along intensely from start to finish. Which suited me just fine; this was a book to savour. Like Daniel Woodrell, Franklin immerses the reader in the landscape, people and rhythms of rural America; its small town politics and social relations, the poverty and racism, the slowly decaying buildings and half-tamed wilderness. Indeed, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a masterclass in Country Noir - atmospheric, understated, dark, humane. It is a story that makes its readers reflect on life, how we treat each other, and how we're wrapped up in a contingent, relational set of values and interactions. The plotting was excellent with just the right balance of back story, historical flashbacks and contemporary unfolding. Larry, Silas and the other characters are very well realised, the dialogue authentic, and the scenes and social relations realistic. The childhood bullying, marginalisation and eventual isolation of Larry in adulthood is very nicely done. I thought the book might rise to a crescendo, but Franklin keeps the understated and humaneness of the story consistent to the end avoiding unnecessary clichés and leaving a nice sense of open closure. Before reading the book I thought the title was a little clunky. On finishing it, I think it works well to capture the crooked twining of Larry and Silas. Overall, a very fine piece of storytelling that lends itself well to movie adaptation.

6 comments:

Declan Burke said...

A brilliant novel, Rob, absolutely.

Cheers, Dec

Maxine said...

Excellent review of a book I enjoyed very much. I like your insightful take on the meaning of the title.

Margot Kinberg said...

Rob - Isn't it a superb read? Thanks for your top-notch review, too.

Rockman said...

One of my favorite books of the year. Great review.

kathy d. said...

This is a great book, no doubt about it. One of my favorites of the year.

It certainly covers all of the themes and issues which you mention.

Franklin is able to understand and convey human emotions quite well, so much so that I cried at Larry Ott's alienation and loneliness.

Friendship lost and found is another important aspect of the book.

Above all, Franklin is writing about another side of the human condition and how we relate to each other.

A fine book. I'd like to see it become part of high school curriculums over here for all of the reasons stated.

Dorte H said...

Another glowing review of this book - well, I put it on my wish list, and if it is not under the tree, I suppose I will have to buy it myself next year.