Saturday, May 28, 2011

Tom Franklin on Friendship

I've been mulling over the nature of friendships obsessively lately as I see our library crew targeting retirement dates, moving away to more reasonable places to live, hoping to simplify their lives. Yesterday I had a "play date," with my college roommate. We try to do this three or four times a year and it's always so satisfying. She, too, is ready to jump off the gerbil wheel.

Forty one years ago I was a bridesmaid in her wedding, we roomed together for three of our four years at Russell Sage, and then we spoke perhaps once a year for thirty years. Imagine how we felt when we found ourselves suddenly living 20 minutes apart in Southwest Florida! The joy of this kind of friendship is that, once reunited, we realized that no time had passed at all. We still find the same things funny, the same things irritating, and have the ability to laugh at ourselves with abandon. We are still on the opposite sides of all things political - except our love of the environment - but simply agree to disagree.

I just finished a powerful novel about friendship, family, race, and secrets in a southern town where nothing much has changed in the almost fifty years since the Civil Rights Act was passed. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, a literary murder mystery, takes place in Mississippi where a bookish young Larry Ott learns early on that friendship cannot transcend race in Chabot. Silas Jones, son of a single black mom who works two jobs to put food on the table, lives in what's likely an abandoned slave cabin on the Ott family farm.

Their secret friendship deepens over time as Larry teaches Silas how to shoot a gun, fish, and appreciate the stories of Stephen King. Yet at school, they pass each other in the hall as strangers. Larry's parents have secrets and his father, especially, is intent upon keeping the boys apart. In a particularly ugly scene, Mr. Ott discovers that Larry has loaned his favorite rifle to Silas, and, pitting the two boys against each other, forces a confrontation that will change their relationship for years to come.

The moniker, "scary Larry," follows young Ott all through his life after his very first date ends in the disappearance of the young woman, her body never found, and suspicion always weighing heavy on Larry, who proclaimed his innocence to no avail. Small towns can be cruel places; reputations once earned are difficult to shed. Larry never had a chance to escape Chabot, while Silas, buoyed by a talent for sports, leaves for college, returning years later as a police constable.

When another woman disappears, it's easy for the townspeople to point to scary Larry. He lives all alone in the family home, runs the family body shop, not that any customers ever come his way, and watches out for his dementia plagued mother in the nursing home.

Silas, who still hurts from the discrimination that sent him away to Oxford (Mississippi that is) twenty years earlier, feels that he has to perform twice as well for half the recognition. This murder investigation is his big chance to gain the respect he deserves. He knows that Larry isn't capable of hurting anyone, but will he have the courage to stand up to the townspeople who have already tried Larry in their hearts?

This heartbreaking novel is so much more than a murder mystery. Even though sharp readers will figure out one of the main points of the story before it's actually revealed, that doesn't detract from Mr. Franklin's painfully honest look at human nature and the lengths that we'll go to to protect ourselves from the bad opinion of others.

The character of Silas is especially interesting, complicated by his guilt and the need to do the right thing after years of covering up key knowledge that could have freed Larry from his loneliness. A few secondary players are also wonderfully drawn. Silas's girlfriend is a strong "sista" who pushes him to be the man she believes he is and Voncile, the dispatcher at the police station, has personality plus. An extremely poignant and satisfying read.

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