Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
By Tom Franklin
Larry Ott, or Scary Larry as he is known in Chabot, Mississippi, owes a lot to Stephen King. Twenty years after being accused of, but not convicted for, the disappearance of local high school girl Cindy Walker, Ott, bereft of friendship, finds escape and friendship in the pages the horror books he loves so much. When another local girl goes missing, the locals immediately suspect Ott, who lives a cloistered and spartan life in the backwoods, trying (and failing) to forget about his troubled past as best he can.
Silas "32" Jones owes a lot to Larry Ott. Though twenty years have blurred the reasons, recent events have brought his past back into the present. The former high school baseball phenom and current darling of the Chabot police department, Silas makes a series of grisly, Stephen King-esque discoveries that put the history of Chabot and, more specifically, the relationship between him and Ott into the front and center.
It, therefore, seems rather ironic that Ott, the plaintive protagonist of Tom Franklin's 2007 novel Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter fails to see the similarities between himself and Carrie White, the abused loner in King's first novel Carrie. Franklin, who is generously peppers his narrative with references to many of King's other classics but is careful to steer clear of the obvious comparison.
And thank god for that. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a far superior than a series of frank juxtapositions. While Franklin may have modeled Ott after Carrie, it's heartening that he doesn't see fit to pummel the reader over the head with the comparison. Such is the wonder of literary fiction, a genre that has suffered under the weight of popular fiction these past 40 years (ironically, we have Stephen King to partially blame for that). The social pariah (Boo Radley?) paradigm has been explored on numerous occasions, but rarely in such capably literary hands. And what, exactly makes Ott such a sympathetic character? Well, like virtually every single person who will ever read this novel (myself included), Larry Ott is a voracious reader.
In Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, Franklin is preaching to the bookish choir. While the plight of Larry Ott is the worst-case scenario for any high school outcast, it's the sort of story that will hit home for more than a few readers. What lifelong reader (or any other sort of social misfit) hasn't felt the sting of rejection. In one particularly poignant scene, Larry recalls an incident in which he was universally accepted by his peers for a single day (owing to a realistic monster mask he brings to school one Halloween) only to be universally and cruelly rejected again once the novelty of the mask has worn thin. Franklin's depiction of Ott loitering in the parking lot, mask in hand, walking slowly to his car and hoping to be noticed by his classmates is so agonizing that I had to put the book down for a few hours to collect myself (something I rarely have to do).
I could accuse Franklin of picking low-hanging fruit and consciously pulling at heart-strings if it weren't for the fact that he handles the subject matter as deftly as anyone could. Franklin forges a connection between his readers and Ott that is nearly impossible to sever. Had Franklin conceived on his story in any other manner and I fear it would not have provided the same cathartic emotions. Unlike Stephen King, Tom Franklin knows exactly how to end his story.
And while Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is not even remotely a horror story, Franklin's style is decidedly an homage to the early novels of King as well as the small town novels of Richard Russo. Franklin, like King and Russo, has a real talent for describing setting and establishing tone. In fact, Franklin's striking portrayal of the deep south reminded me of King's ability to paint rural Maine (or Russo's uncanny capacity to sketch upstate New York) on the printed page. Franklin's Mississippi is so encompassing that it often bear semblance to the kudzu that has engulfed and stifled the local fauna. There is a certain strangulated, smothered flavor that mirrors Ott's tortured life as a social pariah. Wonderful stuff!
The story unfolds in a series of revealed episodes that follow no particular chronological order. Jumping from the present day back to Ott's childhood, the narrative unfolds in beautiful layers, each more riveting than the last. The characters are not always well rendered (some of the secondary characters are nothing more than cardboard cut-outs of southern stereotypes) but those that matter are treated with the care they require and deserve, particularly Ott. I know nothing about Tom Franklin, but one must wonder if Larry Ott is a literary self-portrait owing to the manner in which he is carefully handled.
Though time will eventually tell (and I may be wrong), I get the impression that in twenty years time Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter will be required reading for future students studying early 21st century literature. It is by no means perfect, but it provides a logical progression from the Horror magazines of the 1950s and 60s, through the works of Stephen King into a new generation of literary fiction writers.
On a personal note I can say with absolute certainty that this is by far the best novel I have read in 2012. If you are a lover of literary fiction, you owe it to yourself to pick this novel up. Books like this are becoming a rarity.