Country Dark 

Tom Franklin: Deep South storyteller.

Remember learning to spell the word "Mississippi"? That's M-I-crooked-letter-crooked-letter-I etc.

Tom Franklin remembers. It's the state where Franklin — short-story writer (Poachers) and novelist (Hell at the Breech and Smonk); teacher in the MFA program at the University of Mississippi — has set Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (William Morrow).

If this new novel is a gentler take on what Franklin's fans have come to think of as his signature territory — the violent, male-dominated, backwoods Deep South — it's got its share of dark doings: two white teenage girls (one of them missing and presumed dead, the other definitely dead); a black man, also dead, left to rot in the woods, a feast for the buzzards; plus a scrawny, white good-for-nothing named Wallace Stringfellow, who rides a four-wheeler, smokes weed, keeps a mean dog named John Wayne Gacy along with a houseful of snakes, and talks of rape, because that's what women "like."

It's talk that Larry Ott doesn't like. Just as he doesn't like being the prime suspect in the disappearance of that teenager, named Cindy Walker, gone missing, body never found, and presumed dead (back in 1982). Or the prime suspect in the disappearance, 25 years later, of that other teenager (eventually found dead), a 19-year-old Ole Miss student named Tina Rutherford, daughter of the owner of Rutherford Lumber Mill, here in this rural landscape dotted with small towns, here in southeast Mississippi near the Alabama border.

But what is Larry Ott to do? Nothing, it turns out. The evidence to pin him to the missing or murdered girls is nonexistent. As are the customers at the garage, Ottomotive Repair, which Larry runs and which he inherited from his brute of a father. That business never sees a bit of business, but Larry does visit his mother, who is in a nursing home, a victim of Alzheimer's.

And yet Larry goes quietly about his own business, which is reading the works of his favorite writer, Stephen King, and keeping out of harm's way. Except he can't. As a kid, he was profiled as "girly" by his own father. As a teenager, he was rejected by his classmates. And as an unmarried man, living alone down a lonely country road in the house he grew up in, he was and he is viewed as a weirdo (and worse) by the community. But Silas "32" Jones knows better.

Thirty-two was the number Silas wore when he played star shortstop in high school, after he arrived from Chicago with his mother, Alice, a native of the area. These days, Silas is Gerald County's constable, but he'd like to move to bigger duty.

Silas already has a good record with those who know him. He's got an understanding girlfriend. He's looked after by his one office worker. He's served friendly-like by a diner's waitress. And back in 1982, Silas, who is black, was briefly a friend of Larry Ott, who is white. More than friends, it turns out. And it's their relationship that serves as the backbone story in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, a story that has already earned its author recognition: chief title for October on the recommended Indie Next List (as judged by independent booksellers) and an Okra Pick for fall 2010 by the Southern Indie Booksellers Alliance.

The early recognition's earned. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter makes for strong, true-to-its-setting storytelling. In the character of Wallace Stringfellow, whose full appearance arrives late in the novel, however, it goes one better: a depiction of true creepiness — a chilling portrait delivered by Tom Franklin at his most matter-of-fact. Wallace in dialogue with Larry: the essence of mounting uneasiness and a lesson in the art of revelation — Larry, as we've learned him to be, on the steadying side but eager for friendship; Wallace, as we fear him to be, increasingly, dangerously unhinged. It's a lesson in writing for students to profit from. It's a lesson Tom Franklin needn't deliver. It's here in these pages.

Tom Franklin will read from and sign copies of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter at Square Books in Oxford on Wednesday, October 6th, at 5 p.m. and at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Memphis on Thursday, October 7th, at 6 p.m. He'll be joined, at both events, by multi-award-winning crime novelist Laura Lippman, who will be reading from and signing her latest novel, I'd Know You Anywhere (William Morrow).

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