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Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter: A Novel

By Tom Franklin
William Morrow, 2010
$24.99, Hardcover; $19.99, eBook


Reviewed by Julia Oliver

We know that our region of the country has produced more highly gifted, motivated fiction writers over the last hundred years or so than any other, and we concede that, yes, there probably is something in the water. It has become customary, perhaps to the point of being trite, for reviewers in the South to render tribute to an outstanding, living writer by linking him or her to a famous counterpart from a previous era in the same neck of the woods. Tom Franklin, of Oxford, Mississippi, and before that Dickinson, Alabama, does not need such puffery. He has reached the top of the ladder with his previous novels, Smonk and Hell at the Breech, and the story collection Poachers. But a thought that reoccurred to me as I read this latest work is that Franklin appears to have channeled Faulkner’s passion, spirit, and insight, without exhibiting any sign of the latter’s occasional affectation.

This grittily eloquent narrative begins in the 1970s in rural Mississippi when the two main characters are school boys and ends after they’re grown. Larry Ott, a loner but not by choice, is from a white family. His father’s car-repair shop, which Larry will later inherit (although customers are few and far between), is called Ottomotive. Silas "32" Jones, whose mother is black, leaves the area on a basketball scholarship, but returns and becomes the constable. The engrossing story is told in third-person, from both viewpoints.

Franklin has a powerful way with description. At times, it’s gothically mesmerizing, at others nonchalantly yet vividly detailed: An "old tire" is "cut down the center like a donut sliced in half." Larry greets his mother’s pet hens solemnly, "Good morning, ladies," and moves their coops around to provide them with a change of scenery.

I don’t recall ever having typed the word "masterpiece" before, but, in my opinion, this novel fits that slot. Read the book before it becomes a movie. I have not heard that rumor, but the storyline is strong, and involves a mysterious murder.

The title is part of the epigraph: "M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I" and is followed by the explanation: "How southern children are taught to spell Mississippi." Sept 2010

Julia Oliver’s current project is a play, Juliette’s Journey, based on the life of Juliette Hampton Morgan, a white activist who sided with the black protest during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

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