NOLA.Com by Diana Pinckley
The title of Tom Franklin’s terrific new novel, “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, ” evokes the way kids learn to spell that most complicated of states: “M-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I-humpback-humpback-I.”
It also foreshadows sinuous developments in this tale of crime, race, misperception and memory that Franklin sets in rural southeast Mississippi.
Larry Ott, a white mechanic with no customers, and Silas “32” Jones, a black deputy sheriff and former college baseball star, were close as kids. They explored the fields and forests of Chabot together until they couldn’t be friends anymore.
Eventually, the socially challenged teenage Ott wins his first date. It’s with a hot neighbor girl, who asks him to drop her off to meet another boy — and never is seen again. In the collective town mind, Chabot instantly convicts him of murder, though neither a body nor evidence turns up.
Ott becomes something of a hopeful hermit, living alone with his horror novels and fast-food dinners on the family farm way out in the country. But when another girl disappears 25 years later, suspicions instantly turn to “Scary Larry, ” and Jones is charged with investigating his long-ago friend.
“There’s nothing like one of those really small places where everybody knows everybody else, ” said Franklin, 47, who grew up in Dickinson, Ala., population 607.
Now it seems like everyone in a much wider audience knows Franklin and his beautifully crafted new book, which has been reviewed widely and well. It was chosen as an October best bet by both the Independent Booksellers group and Barnes & Noble.
He and his wife, the poet Beth Ann Fennelly, now live in Oxford, Miss., with their children: Anna Claire, 9, and Thomas III, 5. Franklin teaches writing in the University of Mississippi’s graduate fine arts program in the famous writers’ town. “You can’t go into a house here where there aren’t books on the shelves, and that’s really refreshing, ” he said. “Bartenders read. Bouncers read.”
Franklin will be in New Orleans today and Sunday to talk to readers and writers at the “Words and Music” festival where he will be part of a panel on “Social Injustice, Ethnic Cleansing and Class Prejudice as Inspiration for Art.”
He also drew on his small-town background for his first book, “Poachers: Stories, ” which won an Edgar Award for the title story and was named Best First Book of Fiction by Esquire magazine in 1999. Then history and outsize Alabama outlaws captured his imagination, with “Hell at the Breech” and “Smonk” the result.
There’s even a Smonk burger at Big Bad Breakfast, a John Currence restaurant in Oxford. It’s described on the menu as “the big nasty” and comes with cheese, chili, bacon and fried egg. The author admits he’s never had it. “I can’t open my mouth that wide, ” he said.
Franklin worked off and on for several years on the book that became “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.” Only when he was thousands of miles away, in Brazil where Fennelly was on a Fulbright scholarship, did it all come together.
“I had eight hours a day with nothing to do but write, ” Franklin recalled. “I goofed off; I read big, fat Stephen King novels; but, finally, after about three or four weeks, I started writing. And when I did I was obsessed. I dreamed about the characters. I would get up in the middle of the night to write about them.”
Having to remember everything from so far away made the book perhaps more autobiographical than Franklin intended.
“Larry and I have a lot in common, it turns out. My father was a mechanic, I was obsessed with Stephen King as a boy, and I even used a version of my own first-date story, ” he said.
The ripped-from-life details extended to Franklin’s childhood friendship with an African-American boy. “We drew comic books together. We found ways to tell stories. Neither of us was popular, neither was athletic. I couldn’t understand why we couldn’t sit together at school.”
He initially was reluctant to tell part of the story from an African-American point of view. “It’s an undertaking fraught with danger, ” Franklin said. “I was worried that I might get it wrong and be offensive.”
An African-American faculty colleague urged him on. “I said I was writing about a small-town mechanic and small-town cop, and he suggested that I make the cop a black guy. That would have never crossed my mind — I don’t want to appropriate anyone’s voice. ‘You’re allowed to write from a black man’s point of view, ‘ he said, ‘Just get it right.’ ”
Franklin gets it right from the small-town perspective, too. “Scary Larry” Ott is a strange but gentle man who names his chickens after presidents’ wives and builds a special pen so he can pull them onto the grass to dine on tasty bugs. A few days after the second girl disappears, he has returned home on a midday errand when he’s shot in the chest in his own living room by a man wearing Ott’s own scary mask.
In addition to exploring the complexities of friendship and its lack, Franklin also incorporates changing concepts of the hero. “How media can make heroes of serial killers is really interesting to me, ” he said.
Deputy Silas Jones may return in a future book, Franklin said, but he has a couple of projects to finish first.
“Beth Ann and I are writing a novel together about the flood of 1927 from different points of view, ” he said. “It’s a love story, and it’s hopeful.”
The book after that, with a working title “Charcuterie, ” features an agricultural investigator (“There are still five in Alabama”) and opens with the scene of a very irritated bull who has just fallen off his trailer. Franklin describes it as “Elmore Leonardesque, with humor at the core.”
The teacher believes writers have to learn at their own pace, working hard while opening themselves to inspiration.
“Stories come from the same places dreams come from, ” he said. “So many times, a character has done something that I didn’t see coming. It’s floating right from my subconscious onto the page.”