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Southern Exposure

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

by Tom Franklin

William Morrow | 274 pages | $24.99

Reviewed by Loretta H. Campbell

Thomas Franklin

What is more courageous, vulnerable, or deadly than a Southern white man? Maybe the answer is a southern black man.  Author Tom Franklin, (Smonk, and Hell at the Breech), himself a white southerner, speaks to these questions in this novel. His work exemplifies the inner workings and connections of blacks and whites via the fictional town of Chabot, Mississippi.

The novel's title, taken from the nursery rhyme that teaches children how to spell Mississippi, is a metaphor for the two men who alternately narrate the story. Both of them are physically and emotionally misshapen by tragedy. Franklin deftly works the novel using flashbacks from the 1970s and the present.

32, the black narrator, is the victim of de facto segregation and a product of the Civil Rights Movement. A baseball scholarship got him into college, and the number of his uniform became his nickname. However, he had to flee the South to attend college. When the novel opens, he has returned and become the town's constable.

Larry Ott, the white narrator, is a victim of his abusive father and equally abusive neighbors. Larry is a trained mechanic and the owner of Ottomotive Repair.

His business is basically dead. For the last 25 years, he has been ostracized from the community because they suspect he is a rapist and a murderer. From the beginning of the novel, the reader suspects the townspeople are ignorant of the truth about him. He survives by selling off parcels of land left to him by his parents.

He still owns enough property to keep chickens. After bidding them a hearty good morning every day, he feeds them. "Each morning he latched an interior door and, weather permitting, used the tractor to pull the cage into the field, onto a different square of grass, so the chickens got fresh food--insects, vegetation--and the droppings they left didn't spoil the grass but fertilized it...."

He is so kind and considerate that it's clear that he's hiding something.

Sadly, Chabot is a town where people accept their suspicions as truth. The local drug dealer is shot to death, and Larry is shot soon after.  While he is fighting for his life, 32 is investigating the crimes. Both of these victims were 32's secret friends, the author reveals. 32 smoked dope with the drug dealer, and he and Larry were close friends as boys.

They meet when Larry is being driven to school by his father. "The pair of them was standing at the bend in the road by the store, a tall, thin black woman and her son, about Larry's age, a rabbit of a boy he'd seen at school, a new kid."

To please his son, Larry's father gives the black woman and her son a ride. It turns out the boys are the same age even though Ott acts much older.  Loners and lonely, they become friends unbeknownst to their parents.

The friendship ends when Larry's father brutality turns the boys against each other and deprives both of them of much needed companionship.

On the surface, this novel appears to be a coming of age memoir. It's more.  Franklin is examining the complex relationships of power between whites and blacks in the South. He demonstrates how the balance of power is shifting as more blacks are involved in policy making. One example is 32, who fled the South because of racism and now jails racists.

Franklin equates racism with psychosis. The white men in the novel are racist, homophobic, and alcoholic. They browbeat, beat, or do worse things to their children. The elder Ott and his friends own numerous guns and knives. As outlined in the book, the weapons are seldom used for hunting or fishing. Guns are owned simply because they're guns.

When Larry tells a new friend that he (Larry) doesn't have a gun, the reaction is complete disbelief. "Ain't you got a gun?" Larry shook his head and Wallace sat there with his mouth open, as if he were unable to fathom gunlessness."

However, the power paradigm is not shifting most of the black men in Chabot. While the white men are pathological, the black men are largely absent. 32's father is dead, he's told. The author makes it clear that this is a metaphor for illegitimacy. The only other black man of note is the drug dealer who is dispatched early in the book.

Black men are not dangerous here, but they are endangered ciphers. 32 mentions how the lawyers are white, but the clients (in criminal courts) are black. Unemployment, incarceration, sub-standard education is the new racism, as Franklin outlines it. As in the case of the old racism, most of those who suffer are poor, both blacks and whites.

Franklin is also a master of imagery and language. Here he describes wind chimes that belonged to Larry's mother, "...the chime sounded like a skeleton playing a guitar, and for a time they sat together on the porch and watched the sun scald the sky red and the trees black."

The image of dying fits the town and the life Larry has known. The town, like the wind chime, resembles bones. The one major company in Chabot is a lumber business that is literally reducing the town to rubble. Larry lies in the hospital dreaming about what the town was like when he was a boy and what it has become now that he is a man.

As a man, he dares to hope, despite the obstacles people put in front of him. 32 also develops an inner resource that leads him to important discoveries about past crimes. He and Larry save each other's lives.

In some regards, Franklin makes these two symbols of the new hope of the South. He has been described as the heir to the classic Southern writers, Faulkner, Welty, and O'Connor. He may be. Although those authors deserve their props, Franklin has captured a South they couldn't or wouldn't. He exposes the myth of white entitlement as the source of the problem.

Paradoxically, Larry is the only man in the novel who is entitled to something that he never gets--justice.  Yet he is strong enough to do without it.

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