A Tree Born Crooked, by Steph Post. Austin, Texas: Pandamoon Publishing. 232 pages. Paper, forthcoming.
It’s time to crack out the Mountain Dew and have ourselves a party, because a new voice in Florida noir is here and, hopefully, she’s here to stay.
A Tree Born Crooked, Steph Post’s debut novel, sets readers deep in the parts of Florida that tourists don’t often see—the parts where alligators are as common as hunting dogs, where you’re just as likely to have a shotgun as you are a blue collar job (if you have a job at all), where the drink of choice has been illegal for decades and the second choice is known as the “Champagne of Beers.”
After receiving a postcard telling him that his father has died, James Hart travels home to Crystal Springs—a desolate town whose only claim to fame was “that Elvis Presley had once spent the weekend there on his way to Orlando”—in order to see his old man buried. When he gets there, his mother, Birdie Mae tells him that his father, a smoker till the end, blew himself up—an accident involving his cigarettes and his oxygen tank. There is the small detail, too, that his father was buried two weeks prior.
Angry, Hart heads to the local bar where he meets up with his brother, Rabbit. There, aside from meeting Marlena, the beautiful daughter of the bar’s owner, he also learns of Rabbit’s involvement in the local drug trade and an upcoming plot to make serious money. Hart cannot convince his high on drugs brother that the plan is a bad idea and is sucked in the next day when he finds out that not only did the plan not go as intended, but Rabbit’s partners—one of which is Marlena’s father—are gone, the meager cash they stole with them. Forced into hunting down the money and Marlena’s father, the three find themselves pursued by both a group called the Alligator Mafia and an assortment of other redneck thugs that make Carl Hiaasen’s villains look like they belong on Nick Jr.
Anyone who has spent any amount of time in Florida in a place that isn’t Disney, Miami, or Daytona (check that, Daytona doesn’t count) knows just how weird Florida is. Down here, we have people who take bath salts and try to eat other people. We have guys attempting to barter gators for beer. We have … you get the point. For those of us that live daily in and amongst that weirdness, it is as clear as day just how accurately Steph Post captures Florida’s cast of characters. Each of the people she brings to life on her pages doesn’t so much perpetuate the stereotype of a Florida Cracker as it does bring to life the people you meet at the gas station on the side of a two-lane highway. The skill with which she does this allows the novel to slide along with all of the grace of an alligator in water.
One thing that could’ve very easily ruined this novel but thankfully doesn’t is the language. In a place where standard English isn’t always the standard, Post does well to balance the need for clean, clear dialogue with the flavor that backwoods-y speech patterns can add. Birdie Mae often epitomizes this rounding out of the narrative. In defense of not keeping an alarm system at her store, she says,
Well, we did have one at some point, I think. But then I’m pretty sure your daddy stopped paying for it. Didn’t never think it would work, no how. Those people that put it in looked shady. Not from ‘round here, know what I mean?
It is very easy to picture a woman such as Birdie Mae speaking like this. The logical processes that inform much of her character’s thoughts are there, too, spoken out loud in a way that does not detract from the narrative.
Throughout A Tree Born Crooked, the narrative tension runs high. There is barely a moment where the reader can stop and take a breath to assess the situation. Instead, you seem to stand there right beside Hart as he is forced to find the happy place between wanting to beat his brother to death for his stupidity and watching someone else do it. When you add into the mix the delightfully-named Alligator Mafia—my first thought upon reading that was Tony Soprano dressed like he belonged on Duck Dynasty—you are presented with a thrilling, easy read that delivers on multiple fronts. Not often does Post seem to trip over the ruts and roots that sometimes pop up in genre-style fiction. The prose does not seem forced or cheap, though in another’s hands it is easy to see how it could. The few times that the narrative does drop off, though, Post is quick to save it, pulling the reader back in just like he or she got sucked into an airboat motor.
In A Tree Born Crooked, Post proves that she can run with the best of them, as the book echoes those of writers like Daniel Woodrell and others that have come before her. A Tree Born Crooked begs you come set a while, but by the end, all you’re going to want to do is hug the neck of your loved ones and hope to Heaven that you never meet people like this.
Sam Slaughter brews beer and teaches college English.