How many times have you heard the lament, “They don’t write southern novels the way they used to”? This statement is usually followed by a catalog of classics like To Kill a Mockingbird along with a few reverent references to Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Willa Cather and Flannery O’Conner. “No one writes like that anymore,” they say.
Yes, they do. Kind hearts, let me say (if you don’t already know) that something splendid has returned to southern literature. Before you are 20 pages into Tom Franklin’s new novel, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, you will find yourself smiling, perhaps, saying “Yes, yes. That is it! Here are the smells and sounds of a southern morning, bird songs, dusty roads, and the splender of a midnight sky untainted by the glare of a city.”
Chabot is one of those small southern towns that has been bypassed by the interstate. Most of the stores are closed and the only business that passes for a nightspot is the Chabot Bus - literally, a former bus that is now a tavern. Then there is the Hub Cafe, noted for its unaltered menu of cheeseburgers and oyster po’boys. The last 30 years have brought changes: there are a goodly number of Mexican residents now and both Voncille, the town dispatcher, and Sheriff French’s deputy, Silas Jones, are black. The mayor, affectionately called “Mayor Mo,” is part-time real estate agent and spends most of his time “out of the office.”
If Chabot sounds like a variation of Sheriff Andy’s Mayberry, be assured that the similarity is deceptive. Over 20 years ago, a young girl named Cindy Walker disappeared and now another girl has gone missing, and M&M, a local pot dealer, has been burned to death in his car. However, everyone — including Sheriff French — is confident that they know the killer’s identity. It has got to be “Crazy Larry” Ott, the 42-year-old weirdo who lives in his parent’s old home near Chabot and operates his father’s old garage.
Everyone in town has a “Crazy Larry story.” On the night that Cindy Walker disappeared, she had a date with Larry Ott. In high school, Larry was an outcast, treated with contempt by his classmates. There was the Halloween party where Larry wore a zombie mask. And then there was his obsession with Stephen King books and magazines like “Creepy” and “Eerie.” It was also well known that Larry’s father was bitterly ashamed of his inept son (“No mechanical aptitude at all”). The community leaders were confident that eventually, the truth would surface and Larry would get his just deserts.
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter chronicles Larry Ott’s story, gradually revealing the painful details of his childhood and his desperate yearning for his father’s approval. Shunned by his playmates, Ott is a solitary figure who prowls the woods near his home creating fantasy adventures until he meets Silas Jones. Although their friendship is brief and awkward, Larry never forgets it. When Silas leaves Chabot and becomes a successful ballplayer, Larry follows his career. When “32 Jones” returns (32 was the number on his baseball shirt), Ott attempts unsuccessfully to renew their friendship.
Larry Ott’s lonely life appears to be a pertinence that he pays for crimes that he never committed. Eventually, he accepts the town’s rejection, although he sometimes utters a prayer: that God will someday send him “a friend.” In the meantime, he putters with his chickens which he has named after “First Ladies,” and when he visits his mother in the nursing home he tells her that Barbara Bush is “a good layer,” but Rosalynn Carter hasn’t laid in two weeks. Then, suddenly, the miraculous happens — the long-awaited friend appears. His name is Wallace Stringfellow, and the reader is not likely to forget him.
There is a pronounced “literary echo” in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. Larry Ott, ostracized and condemned by the community, bears a definite resemblance to Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. However, there is a significant difference. Whereas Boo hides from his tormentors, Larry Ott stands in the doorway of his garage each day, staring hopefully at the passing traffic. Perhaps today he will find a customer and a friend.
This modest synopsis of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter stops short of revealing a great deal. Suffice it to say that there are layers of skillfully designed details that have not been explored. Eventually, the reader will learn what happened on that fateful night that Larry Ott had his first (and only) date. There are also revelations about Silas Jones and the reasons for his rejection of Larry’s timid offers of friendship. Finally, there is Wallace Stringfellow, a character who resembles one of William Gay’s “perverse demons.” All of these revelations deserve to be discovered by the reader.
However, the greatest pleasure in reading Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter resides in savoring the masterful writing. Franklin captures the sights and sounds of the rural South with skill. When Larry Ott sits in the darkness nursing a cup of coffee on his front porch, the air is thick with the smell of goldenrod and honeysuckle. In the heat of the day, Larry smells the cut grass (he has a push mower), watches the dragonfly “snake feeders flit through his garden,” and listens to the raucous cry of blue jays. The writing is filled with images from a vanishing South, Coke machines (like the big red one in Larry’s garage, screen doors, grease pits, chicken tractors and mangled mail boxes (some with a resident rattlesnake).
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter successfully links the old South with the new and perhaps the time has come to move on. Reluctantly, Larry will have to update his garage, stow his wrenches and ratchets, and get some computerized equipment. It is time to dismantle his obsolete TV antenna and get a satellite dish. Hopefully, he may show up at Chabot Bus and someone will finally offer to buy him a beer (Silas?). He may even find another Stephen King fan — someone he can invite home to watch “The Shining” on HBO. It would seem that Chabot owes him that much.