Dark Passages: Pursued by the Past

My newest Dark Passages column for the LAT heaps praise on Tom Franklin’s new novel CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER, which bowled me over in a big, big way, even more so than his previous work, which I’ve admired for several years. Here’s part of the reason why:

Franklin first attracted deserved notice with the compendium of award-winning short stories rounded up in his 1999 collection “Poachers” and later with “Hell at the Breech” (2002), a moody historical novel thick with southern Georgia settings and characters well-practiced at shattering illusions — others’ and their own. Then came “Smonk” (HarperPerennial: 272 pp, $13.95 paper) which ratcheted up both the comedy{#010000000943} and the violence as a bloody-minded psychopath cuts a wide swath through the American West, building up wild myths and tall tales for others to tell when the truth is more complex, and even more entertaining.

Franklin’s writerly range takes yet another startling turn with “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter” (William Morrow: 274 pp., $24.99), the title derived from the mnemonic that helps Southern children spell the word “Mississippi”: “M,I, crooked letter, crooked letter, i, crooked letter, crooked letter, i, humpback, humpback, i.” (Franklin includes the extended phrase as an epigraph to begin the novel.) The memory jingle is suitably nonsensical on the surface to provoke sly grins or groans among the children forced to learn it by heart, but it has deeper resonance as a way to tie together two young boys whose unlikely friendship ended up thwarted, only to meet again as adversaries on a collision course with tragedy.

Read on for the rest. It’s also gratifying to see how much attention Franklin and this book in particular has received, including being the top choice among indie booksellers and Barnes & Noble this month. For more, see his interview with NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday and the Memphis Commercial Appeal, and Ron Charles’ review in WaPo.