Franklin's Deep South saga as crooked as its title

"Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter," by Tom Franklin. Morrow, $24.99.

Whites and blacks alike are targets of prejudice, ignorance and injustice in the rural Mississippi of Tom Franklin's latest novel.

It's a dark tale of two men, now 41, who meet 25 years after a brief high school friendship to find that their past and present lives have more in common than either wants to admit.

The plot is part buddy story, part mystery, part social commentary, all of which don't quite fit together, although Mr. Franklin manages to tie up most of the loose ends before the book is over.

The buddies are Larry Ott, white son of an auto repair shop owner, and Silas Jones, child of a single black mother. Their comradeship had been frowned on by parents and outsiders in the past, and the men are no longer friends.

The mystery concerns the disappearance of a young woman who went with Ott in high school to a drive-in movie and was never seen again.

The social commentary involves the community's lifelong ostracism of Ott for a crime he did not commit, and the rise of Jones, who first went to Chicago on a baseball scholarship, and has now returned to Mississippi as constable of a nearby town. But he has deep-seated problems of his own.

Ott now lives the life of a hermit, subsisting on a small amount of inherited money and going to the repair shop every day even though there are no customers.

Jones harbors secrets that might have exonerated his boyhood friend, while Ott knows things about his ex-friend's parentage that might have changed his life as well. When another local girl goes missing, two decades later, Ott becomes the prime suspect.

Ott is condemned by public opinion but can't defend himself. The author has his protagonist shot in the first chapter, with the worn literary mechanism of keeping Ott in a coma until close to the end. The reader gets to know him in a series of confusing and tedious flashbacks, which alternate with the present-day story of Jones and the demons he is forced to confront.

The perpetrator of at least one of the crimes is obvious from the start, while the struggles of Ott as a sensitive teenager with an insensitive father is another cliche.

Even the plot twist that provides an unconvincing hopeful ending is no surprise. None of these drawbacks would matter if the characters were uniquely drawn, or if the atmosphere of the Deep South delineated something new and compelling.

There are occasional flashes of insight, but for the most part this is a story that's been told too many times before.

Robert Croan is senior editor of the Post-Gazette. First Published October 3, 2010 4:00 AM


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