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Book Review / Fiction

A Tale That Trolls Familiar Waters

RED GRASS RIVER, A Legend, by James Carlos Blake, Avon, $23, 384 pages

October 23, 1998|JONTHAN LEVI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"If the devil ever raised a garden the Everglades was it." So begins "Red Grass River," the latest novel from the writer James Carlos Blake, who won the 1997 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction for "In the Rogue Blood." The Everglades has proved a popular novelistic destination this year, spawning books as different as Carl Hiaasen's hilarious "Lucky You" and Peter Matthiessen's "Lost Man's River."

"It's 60 miles wide and half-a-foot deep. . ," Blake writes. "It's bones in that muck a million years old and bones aint been there a week. Animal bones. Bones of men. It's 10,000 stories buried out there aint nobody heard but the devil."

One of these 10,000 stories tells of the "bad blood between John Ashley and Bobby Baker," two boyhood friends whose teenage quarrel over a girl turns into a feud to the death. John, the son of a moonshiner, and Bobby, the son of the sheriff, both born just before the century, play out their particular cycle of crime and punishment in southern Florida from 1911 to 1924. An accidental murder turns John onto the hard stuff--hooch running, bank robbery, prison escape. But in reality, John is a loyal, family-loving good ol' boy, who loves nothing more than a weekly romp in the cathouse with a blind rent-a-belle named Loretta May. Bobby becomes the true villain, a lawman drunk with hatred, with a sense of humor as perverted as his vengeance.

If this sounds like the plot of a 19th-century barroom ballad or the synopsis of a dime-store dreadful, perhaps the repetition is intentional. At one point in the book, John's wife, searching for her erring husband through the corridors of a bordello, hears "plinking piano music carried faintly through the wider door--'Frankie and Johnny'--and she felt like both laughing and crying at this tune so perfect to the circumstance."

Yet "Red Grass River" is peppered with so many of these cliched tunes--musical, historical and otherwise--that the reader is never sure whether to laugh at Blake's self-reflexive joke or to cry out at his nerve, at this literary karaoke, in which the writer, unsure of his own voice, seems to be doing nothing more than pen-synching some favorite oldie, a story of the days when men were men and Florida meant more than mah-jongg and models. One waits for the longed-for twist, when Blake will reveal the true reason he has led the reader down a path trod so many times before.

Peter Matthiessen and Cormac McCarthy, among many others, have found fresh ways to orchestrate these old songs of death and redemption. They have written the new standards against which to ponder sentences such as: "It's too damn many people with too damn many scores to settle in this world, Johnny," as the one sober Ashley brother (read: the young Robert Duvall in the Coppola film version) preaches as the book lurches toward an ending and a moral. "If we dont start lettin go of some of these damn scores, thats all we'll be doin the rest of our days, tryin to settle em. That aint no goddamn way to live. It's just a way to not live long."

It's a sentiment perfectly suited to the Everglades--"60 miles wide and half-a-foot deep."

At one point in the book, John's wife, searching for her erring husband through the corridors of a bordello, hears 'plinking piano music carried faintly through the wider door--"Frankie and Johnny"--and she felt like both laughing and crying at this tune so perfect to the circumstance.'

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