This is a marvellous book; one that, after you have read it, makes you want to go out and buy multi-copies to give to all your friends for Christmas, and one which inspires the sentiment: “if you only read one novel this year, make it this one”. Since its original publication in the USA, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter has been a bestseller as well as being extremely well reviewed. I hadn’t paid it any attention, though, until it won this year’s CWA Gold Dagger award the day before I spotted a copy in my local library – so I thought I’d give it a try.
The novel is set in rural Mississippi, telling the tale, switching back and forth in time, of two boys – Silas Jones, a baseball player who becomes a poorly paid traffic cop, and Larry Ott, an ostracised countryman and car mechanic. The first chapter pulls the reader in straight away, describing Larry’s lonely lifestyle in his parents’ house; his childhood memories of family tensions; the jobs he’s devised at home and “work”; and his strange welcoming of what seems to be a certain death.
The story unfolds of Larry’s past as he grew up in the impoverished hamlet of Chabot, which boasts a lumber mill and not much else in terms of employment prospects. Larry’s father runs Ottomotive, a car repair shop, but is disappointed in his son’s lack of mechanical ability and treats him as if he’s a wimp because he is always reading (largely horror stories and comics). Larry is very close to his mother, but never manages to make friends at school. His parents have a few hundred acres of land, which do not seem to be used for anything agricultural apart from supporting some chickens. The nearest cabin is owned by Cecil Walker, another drunk who is on permanent disability after a long-ago accident at the mill. He lives there with his quiet wife and her daughter, the sluttish Cindy. This girl vanished when Larry was 16, under circumstances which make everyone in the town convinced Larry must have killed her. They’ve shunned him for 25 years, and he’s had to live with those consequences as well as being shaped by them.
Silas came to Chabot as a young boy when Alice, his mother, had to leave Chicago. He first encounters Larry with his father Carl in the morning on their daily drive to Larry’s school. Carl gives the mother and son a lift, and the two boys eventually become friends – especially when Larry discovers that Silas is living in a run-down old shack at the edge of the Ott property. The boys spend time together in the outdoors, despite Larry’s instinctive knowledge of his parents’ disapproval (he is white; Silas is black – Chabot is, to put it mildly, segregationist), but as they become teenagers their friendship weakens, culminating in Silas leaving town on a baseball scholarship, and eventually to “Ole Miss” (University of Mississippi at Oxford). Years later, having finished his career as “32”, Silas returns to Chabot as a policeman whose main job is to direct traffic twice a day as the workers arrive and leave the mill. When Larry tries to reconnect with his old friend, Silas won’t have anything to do with him.
Matters come to a head when, in the present day, another girl goes missing – not just any girl but the daughter of the family who owns the mill. Everyone leaps to the conclusion that Larry is responsible, though the police can find no evidence nor make him confess.
Although from the account I have just provided, the book sounds like a crime novel, it isn’t. The disappearance of the two girls is not described directly but rather is part of the book’s background canvas. Instead, the author writes about life in all its tiny details in Chabot, in the countryside, the diners and the “trashy” areas; about the people who live there – not just Larry and Silas but their mothers, Larry’s father, Silas’s colleagues and contacts at work – in such brief but telling prose that they all come alive on the page as real characters. The novel is infused with the love of nature, of the snakes and the creepers, the weed-ridden fields and the creeks where people fish, often through Larry’s eyes, as his character gradually unfolds before us. (Later, Silas’s character also unfolds, and he’s a very different proposition.) The extreme poverty in which almost all the characters live is never emphasised, but again, infuses everything in a million subtle ways. Here is a portrait of a community and an atmosphere that is so telling that the reader is there, experiencing it seemingly first-hand. Here are relationships between parents and children, and the lives of those children when they become adults, that are tellingly depicted, with deceptive simplicity yet with great insight.
The “crimes” in the book are incidental – they drive the plot but they aren’t central to what is being told. There is no mystery as such – the two or three revelations or solutions are not surprises as we can see them coming – the interest is not in finding out what happened, or who committed the crimes, but how they happened, which is conveyed in parallel with the slow revelation of the truth of Larry’s and Silas’s secret histories.
I don’t usually like to compare authors to other authors, but this book has more in common with the writings of John Steinbeck, in particular in the depictions of the exuberance of the natural world amid a poor and deprived human society, than it does with a “crime” novel. What’s more, it has the kind of moral heart that is so beautifully conveyed, with all its tragedy, toughness and hope, by Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
I borrowed this book from the library.