A Tree Born Crooked
by Steph Post
Pandamoon Publishing, 2014
246 pages, $14.12
Reviewed by Scott Russell

A Tree Born Crooked never does grow straight, and you’re going to want to follow it to the tip of every twisted branch.

Steph Post’s debut novel is a gritty and gripping North Florida noir that brings the shadiest parts of the Sunshine State to life. The narrative, which puts a distinctly neo-Southern spin on the timeless ideas of family, homecoming and redemption, is loaded with thrilling suspense, evocative language and understated emotion.

Our protagonist, James Hart, is summoned back to his tiny Central Florida hometown by a postcard informing him of his father’s untimely death. Hart is a 36-year-old auto mechanic and booze enthusiast with a kind heart and a quick temper, “a good listener, but a better fighter.” James quits his auto body shop job, puts his transient home in the White Oleander trailer park behind him, and heads for Crystal Springs, Florida, to bury what’s left of his daddy, who, as it happens, perished in an explosion after sparking a cigarette too close to his oxygen tank. James’ homecoming is quickly derailed, however, when his mother Birdie Mae flatly notes that he’s missed his father’s funeral by a full two weeks.

Reeling from this gut punch of a revelation, James makes his way to the local dive bar, the Blue Diamond, with a mind to drink his familial frustrations away. It’s here that he meets the beautiful Marlena Bell, the daughter of the Diamond’s owner, Waylon; it’s also where he links up with his younger brother Rabbit, who lets James in on his plan to knock off a mob-backed strip club for big money with the help of their dubious cousin Delmore. The stakes are raised sky-high when Rabbit and Delmore’s half-assed attempt to rob the club goes south. James and Marlena find themselves protecting Rabbit from a ruthless group known as the Alligator Mafia while undertaking a desperate search for the stolen cash.

What follows is an unpredictable adventure that is packed to the gills with kinetic dialogue, rustic settings and colorful characters. Although the storyline stalls and sputters a time or two, Post shows a steady hand in propelling the narrative forward and keeping you invested in its events. This is a novel that’s meant to be consumed as quickly as a swig of shine – a true blue page-turner. You’ll find yourself immersed in James and the gang’s journey, stopping to catch your breath only when they do, and sharing their highs and lows as they crisscross the Florida panhandle, braving head-splitting hangovers, pulse-pounding shootouts, and white-knuckle car chases.

Post doesn’t have to reach for realism here – her equable, deliberate authorial voice is a natural fit for the novel’s country noir sensibility. She has an excellent ear for lifelike dialogue, wielding a Southern accent like a sawed-off shotgun without ever overstepping the boundaries of believability.

In addition, Post does a top-flight job of animating the novel’s broken-down, backwater locales, the places that most people pass through on their way to bigger (and perhaps better) things. She writes as if she knows the rural bars, trailer parks, roadside motels and interstates of North and Central Florida all too well, depicting them with pinpoint accuracy down to the last detail. For example, on the road, James and the gang pass by “eighteen-wheelers and minivans full of children clutching sticky Popsicles and frazzled parents who never wanted to see Mickey Mouse again,” like every Floridian has at one point or another. Post also brings the authenticity by crafting vivid images out of both the mundanely bucolic, like “a mountain of crushed Natty Light cans,” and the naturally beautiful, a la “the rustling leaves of the live oaks overhead and the whine of the cicadas.”

There is no shortage of good country people inhabiting the novel’s well-crafted world – these are folks who would likely become mere caricatures in the hands of a lesser writer, but Post brings them to life in three dimensions. The novel turns on its strong and silent protagonist James, who tends to seek solutions to his problems with a clenched fist, or at the bottom of a whiskey bottle. James is a flawed but lovable character whose lifelong search for a place where he belongs is universally relatable. As a result, his arc is immensely satisfying. We also learn much about the apple from the tree: Orville, the late Hart family patriarch, looms large over the story, although he only appears in it in the form of flashbacks. It’s through James’ memories of the bond that he shared with his dearly departed father that we get a glimpse of our stoic protagonist’s innermost emotional core.

James’ neurotic, would-be bandit brother Rabbit is the catalyst who sets the story’s intense events in motion. Although he’s hard to empathize with at times, Rabbit’s criminal ways are rooted in his deep-seated desire to earn James’ approval: he “want[s] so badly to impress his older brother, to prove that by staying behind in Crystal Springs he ha[s] made something out of himself.” Their mother Birdie Mae is equally complex, a large, “dishwater blonde” woman who doesn’t appear to care much for her two sons, but is quite partial to mindless sitcoms, Chef Boyardee and Virginia Slims. Rounding out the cast of principal characters is Marlena, the intelligent, capable and captivating woman whom James finds as beautiful as “long stretches of empty highway at midnight.”

With this imperfect but undeniably engaging debut, it’s safe to say that Steph Post has etched her name near the top of the list of promising young novelists to watch. If A Tree Born Crooked is any indication at all, she’ll be telling the stories of the South for a long time to come.