Crooked Letters Come to Terms Among the Kudzu

Normally I don’t read popular novels but then again I am not normal. I’m usually off on some quirky tangent, perhaps pouncing on the findings of the Higg’s Boson or pondering The Closing of the American Mind (Allan Bloom) or simply playing the role of suburban scofflaw.  But a recent novel’s cover appeared in the periphery of my imagination as I sauntered by a Barnes & Noble’ book table.

 I have long been drawn to the droll humor and sardonic wit of southern writers such as Wendell Berry, Flannery O’Connor, William Gay, Barry Hannah…there are too many to name here.  So it was the name of the author, “Tom Franklin” that pulled me over to the curb, so to speak. 

Tom is a contributor to the Oxford American Magazine, The Southern Magazine of Good Writing to which I subscribe. It was from the In the Best of The South 2012 issue of that same magazine that I learned about Tom Franklin’s “notoriety.”  There, columnist Jack Pendarvis penned “I Don’t Hate it!  Kickin’ it with Kelly Hogan.  In his own tongue-in-cheek jaded way Pendarvis starts:

 “1)  Tom Franklin. Tom Franklin. Tom Franklin. Tom Franklin.  I have three items worthy of the “Best of the South,” and the greatest of these is novelist Tom Franklin.  Really, all of them are Tom Franklin.  As has been pointed out to me by Tom Franklin, Tom Franklin has been present at almost all the events described in this space since the inception of my column.  For example, his wife Beth Ann Fennelly may make a witty quip while Tom stands at some distance away, nodding encouragingly.  It’s true that I mention Beth Ann frequently here, yet never Tom, nor his superlative nodding.  The occasion that seems to bother him most grievously is the time he was driving the car while Beth Ann and I were exchanging our famous witty quips and he was just nodding away to beat the band and nobody cared.”

2)      Testicles. …This guy Andrew Zimmerman blew through town a little while back…I had some yogurt that evening and said to my wife, “Sweetie, you know what this needs?  Testicles!”

“I’ll tell you who else has testicles:  Tom Franklin.”

3)      “…Kelly Hogan…has been a musician most of her life, and her best music is characterized by that mix of sparkle and danger.”

 

“Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter” is the title of the book I read by Tom Franklin. The story resides mostly around the hamlet of Chabot, Mississippi (are you seeing it?).

 I’m not going to give out a lot of the story. In fact, I’ll just give a line about the characters. I’ll not tell you the ending. You’ll have to read the whodunit yourself.

 Main characters:  Two boys grow up in parallel worlds:  “Scary” Larry Ott (a lover of Stephen King stories, the Night Shift collection in particular) and Silas, later to be known as “Constable” or “32.”

The story delves into friendship, murder and mystery, all offered up with plenty of sensate details doing their Siren’s work – luring the readers into the story and holding them to the end. Here’s one evocative excerpt from Chapter Eight:

“Angie ignored her but started on the food, opening the mustard packets and squeezing them onto her plate for her French fries, chewing her hamburger slowly, sipping her Diet Coke through her straw as Silas told how, at first, he’d been shocked how quiet the woods seemed compared to Chicago, no crowds, car horns, sirens, no el trains clacking by.  But in the woods, if you stopped, if you grew still, you’d hear a whole set of sounds, wind rasping though silhouetted leaves and the cries and chatter of blue jays and brown thrashers and redbirds and sparrows, the calling of crows and hawks, squirrels barking, frogs burping, the far baying of dogs, armadillos snorkeling though dead leaves and dozens of other noises he slowly learned to identify.  He found he’d never seen real darkness, not in the city, but how, if you stood peeing off the cabin porch on a moonless night, or took a walk though the woods where the treetops stitched out the stars, you could almost forget you were there, you felt invisible.  Country dark, his mother called it.”

 Let me know what you think about the book with your comments.

 (A personal note:  Though I liked the intertwining stories of the two boys and the southern fabric of this woven tale – the crooked letters find redemption among the kudzu – I am again saddened by the way fathers are depicted:  alcoholic, abusive, absent. There are so many good men in the world and yet the same old broken antagonists are used to generate sympathy for the characters. Enough already.)

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