July Read of the Month: “A Tree Born Crooked,” by Steph Post

Steph Post

Steph Post

Reviewed by Phil Jason

I almost missed this one, which is among the most original and striking Florida novels I’ve encountered in my almost nine years of walking this beat. No gorgeously hued Sunshine State here. This is the Florida of grit and grime state: the North Florida that is really Southern, rather than the South Florida that is mostly Northern.

If you can hold your liquor, or even if you can’t, jump into the beat-up pickup and come along for the ride. You’ll need plenty of antacid, bandages, and your weapon of choice.

The plot focuses on the reluctant homecoming of James Hart. James has survived a youth of petty crime and various kinds of self-destructive behavior. Estranged from his family, he has for a time now abandoned his reckless former life and become a responsible, if lonely, citizen. James returns to Crystal Springs, Florida after receiving a rather impersonal announcement about his father’s funeral. He comes home too late, and it’s unclear if he is really welcome.

James is viewed as someone who betrayed his family, rather than as someone who escaped a debilitating environment. For most who stay, Crystal Springs is a dead end: run down businesses, too much drinking and drugs, and no sense of a future. Success means pulling off a robbery and getting away with it.

In fact, such is the sordid dream that has backfired on James’s younger brother, Rabbit, who is caught up in a dangerous caper as well as a drug habit. Suddenly, it is James’s duty – should he choose to accept – to help Rabbit survive his bad decisions. Reluctantly, James gets involved in extricating Rabbit from a situation in which Rabbit is accused of stealing money from a local money laundering scheme. Rabbit had learned that a pile of cash would be temporary stashed at a local strip club. The Alligator Mafia, a small-time mob connected to larger ones – is breathing down his neck.

Rabbit and his cohorts are biting the criminal hand that already feeds them, and they will pay for this big time. The heist does not succeed as planned, and the strip club owner’s men are looking to get that money back and send a message.

James travels with Rabbit, their cousin Delmore, and the beautiful but haunted Marlena Bell (who “could switch from a pistol to a pillow” with ease) on a rather half-baked plan to save Rabbit. It involves chasing down Marlena’s father, Waylon, who has played a part in the theft. Their scheme makes sense while you’re reading the book, but the logic starts to unravel when you try to remember it.

However, it does get us on the road from North Central Florida across the Panhandle to and through Tallahassee and back again. What is important on this journey, and throughout the novel, is Steph Post’s perfect pitch representation of her characters’ dialogue, desperation, and determination along a stretch of nonstop action.

Ms. Post’s Florida is a place where even the trash gets trashed, and readers are witness to the accumulations of failed communities, failed ambitions, and failed relationships, all of which lie just below the bluff of bravado that wins the characters momentary dignity.

Indeed, Crystal Springs “was a town that people were born in, knowing already that they were going to die in it.” Die how? Don’t ask.

The author’s descriptive skills are superb. We might not like what we’re looking at, whether it be a seedy motel or a disintegrating vehicle or a beat-up face, but we can’t help but be held in amazement by the power and precision of the descriptions.

A Tree Born Crooked is a variation on the “you can’t go home again” theme, exploring the reasons why people try, the reasons why they avoid trying, and the powerful dream of home and belonging that denies so much of its true ugliness and pain.

It is also a study in betrayal, forgiveness, and second chances.

It is the true, raw South seen through a gunsight, finger on the trigger, safety off.

Reprinted, with permission, from Florida Weekly.

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