Most people born in small towns like Crystal Springs figure it out before they get out of school that they are going to die there, too, unless they run away like James tried to do. He lived around people who always had known way too much about him – people who seem like candidates for the next Jerry Springer Show. But the small town ways he was born into were still with him no matter how far he ran away.
James went away to pursue his dream of becoming a pilot. With a little less than a thousand bucks his dad dug up that was buried in the yard in an old mason to see him on his way, he set out. But his dreams really pan out. He fell in with the same kind of people he was running away from, ending up on the wrong side of the law. When he saw people around him dying or going away to prison, he tried running away from that, too. Working on cars instead of stealing them was okay for just getting by.
Then, he receives a post card from his mother telling him his father died and he needs to come home. Despite the years away, Crystal Springs hasn’t changed much. Small towns never do. People he went to school with remain trapped in their circumstances, not knowing anything better and settled in a sort of pathetic routine. Although he doesn’t want to stay in his hometown any more than he did the day he left it, he gets drawn into a real mess involving his younger brother, Rabbit, a cousin, Delmore and Waylon, a bar owner and father of a girl named Marlena who remembers James but he barely recalls her. But the better he gets to know her the more he thinks that she might have been a reason for him never to have run away.
Steph Post author’s voice is particularly well suited to the Country Noir genre of A Tree Born Crooked. Her descriptions of modern-day, small-town, southern life is both accurate and as far from an idyllic Norman Rockwell depiction of rural America as imaginable. In the harsh light of the bright Florida sun and the darkest nights a few miles from nowhere we learn what the people of Crystal Springs are really like. Transported in a beat-up, rusted, 70’s vintage pick-up with faded baby blue paint, we are taken to a place most outsiders just pass by as they head down the Interstate for something better to do and a bigger city to do it.
What makes Post’s novel interesting is something akin to why we as humans stand transfixed watching a train wreck in progress, or perhaps why we listen to gossip even though we might never think we spread such vile speculations about the people we know. This inspection of the human condition is a microcosm of our world. In some way we all may relate to a way of life that we might otherwise overlook or just pretend it doesn’t exist.
Steph Post is a highly skilled storyteller who has fashioned a fictional setting for her book that you’ll swear is some place you’ve driven through on your way to somewhere better. Her characters are as real as that aunt and uncle that everyone else in the family would prefer to ignore, or that family who lives in the trailer park, the ones with relatives in prison and those who aren’t seem to always be up to no good.
A Tree Born Crooked is due out in the Fall of 2014. Put it on your To Be Read list.