5” x 8” perfect-bound trade paperback
Review copy: Printed ARC
Review originally published on 1/8/15
The field of country noir, or however you’d like to phrase it (It’s got a lot of names.), is having its heyday. In the gamut of Southern authors alone, you’ve got heavy-hitters like Daniel Woodrell and Tom Franklin, and with A Tree Born Crooked, Steph Post is shouldering into the ranks.
In this novel, Post introduces us to James Hart and the rundown, post-recession world of Crystal Springs, Florida. James is summoned home to Crystal Springs after the death of his father, who didn’t read the ‘do not use near open flame’ warning on his oxygen tank. Somewhat typical troubles arise when James gets tangled up in his brother Rabbit’s strip-club heist. A cross-state chase ensues, one party in search of another in pursuit of another. Oxy, bad kin, a murdered woman, the occasional bombastic death: these are the things you can expect from the genre. Where Post diverges from this tangled wood is in the brief flickers of intelligence and prescience from her brighter characters.
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James starts off as a bit of a cipher. You get the feeling of capability right away — you know he’s seen and done things. You know he got out from whatever those things are, and is hunkered down in a lifestyle with no way in or out. Lucky for him, beer exists. This is not a long-term plan, and not the life of someone with the sharpest of tacks. And yet, when blood calls him back to Crystal Springs, it seems he knows, instinctively and immediately, that this is the end of that going-nowhere life. He leaves it all behind, even though what’s ahead of him is little to nothing more — nothing he can see for sure, at least. It’s this instinct that’s fresh. We don’t find our hero in a situation that seems beyond his ken — there’s never an incredulous moment of “How did I end up in this action flick?” recognition. James has known it all along. This brings with it an existential bent, a philosophical depth that eschews the more deterministic and nihilistic flavors of traditional noir for one of will and — however limited — choice. Couple this with Marlena, Crystal Springs’ only >100 IQ candidate, and you’ve got some fresh ingredients to throw into a somewhat thin-stewed genre.
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A Tree Born Crooked isn’t going to throw too many surprises your way. There’s a little wobble to its steps, and at times Post has to work hard to inject some beauty into a downtrodden, hungover world. But there’s fun to be had here, and Tree is nothing if not fast-paced. The trip will be all the better if you can manage to breathe where Post lets you, recognize the depth she’s building when most authors would leave you in a puddle, and hang on tight when she revs the engine (The keyword for shit hitting the fan is “spark.”). A Tree Born Crooked is a stomp in the right direction for Post. Be on the lookout for another.