Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tom Franklin's CROOKED LETTER

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
Published by William Morrow
Hardcover $24.99


The effects of children bullying each other has been a hot topic in the news recently, but bullying has been around for a long time. It's one of the themes in Tom Franklin's devastating novel, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.


The narrative swings back and forth between the late 1970s and the present. In the 1970s, Larry Ott is a young, lonely white boy from a lower middle class family who befriends the new boy in town- Silas, the son of single black mom. There is some kind of connection between Larry's family and Silas' mom, and enough clues are given that the careful reader will figure out the relationship well before the characters do.

The boys enter high school and grow apart as Silas becomes a baseball star, and Larry becomes the target of bullies. As the mother of two grown sons, I found Larry's sad, tormented, day-to-day existence heartbreaking to read. Why can't kids see the awfulness of what they are doing to each other? Larry escapes into books, and becomes an avid reader.

When a pretty girl from school asks Larry to take her out on a date to the drive-in, Larry and his parents are thrilled. His father, who is a bully himself, even loans Larry his car. Larry's hope for the date is ruined when she asks him to drop her off to meet her boyfriend, go to the drive-in alone, and then come back and pick her up after the movie.

Larry does as he's told, but when he arrives at the place he dropped her off, she is nowhere to be found. He goes home and the next day, he becomes the only suspect in her disappearance. She is never found, but everyone in town believes that Larry killed her.

His life becomes even lonelier than before. His home and property is regularly vandalized, and when another girl disappears twenty years later, Larry is again a suspect.

Silas has returned home as a sheriff's deputy, and he is part of the investigation into the disappearance. He feels bad about how he has ignored Larry, and he is the only one who doesn't believe Larry is guilty.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter successfully combines mystery with literary fiction. Fans of both genres will be pleased with this incredible novel. Franklin has created two fascinating characters in Larry and Silas, both with flaws, and I liked how the concept of integrity is approached in both men.

I find books that explore the male psyche intriguing, and this one is exceptional.  The book is so well crafted, every word so thoughtfully placed.
"Silas felt flattened by the truth, or the telling of it, his lungs empty and raw and the spaces behind his eyes throbbing."
The masterful way Franklin puts the reader into Larry's sad world creates such empathy, this book should be read by high school English classes.
"His eyes were closed but he felt water-not even tears, just water- spilling over his cheekbones, dripping off his jaw and chin."

The book reminded me of George Pelecanos' The Turnaround, both combining a long-ago mystery with race relations, how a decision made in youth can affect someone his entire life, and the concept of forgiveness.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter has ended up on many Best of 2010 list, and deservedly so. Larry Ott is a character I won't soon forget.

Rating 4.5 of 5 stars

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