Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi All in the Family

By Scott Rogerson

JANUARY 4, 1999:  James Carlos Blake's previous novel, In the Rogue Blood (1997), won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction. His new elegy to the past, Red Grass River: A Legend, moves forward in time and geographically eastward to a place called the Devil's Garden.

"If the Devil ever raised a garden, the Everglades was it."

In Red Grass River, Blake lays stake to the literary high-ground of South Florida during the raucous years between 1911 and 1924. His fourth novel chronicles a gangland-style family feud between the Ashleys and the Bakers that peaks during the most lawless days of Prohibition. It is the glassy sawgrass swamps full of gators, tigers, and snakes, and every other abomination of wild beast, that gives Blake a perfect setting for his thunderous prose.

Like any good novelist, Blake tells his whole story in the first few pages. He uses a clever device called "The Liars' Club," where an oldtimer who knew the Ashleys and still remembers their sorry exploits narrates some of the club's taller tales and gives Red Grass River its context.

"That's for damn sure the way of it down South. Back when we was pups a bunch of graybeards used to sit around in the town square and tell stories about the War Between the States and the bad old days of Reconstruction and the doings of the Klan and such. Everybody used to call those oldtimers the Liars' Club. And now it's what everybody calls us too. ..."

Blake works his magic as only a master storyteller can do and transforms this reedy down-home vernacular into historical reality that explodes off the page.

Bootleggers, bankrobbers, and bloodshed. The Ashleys were hunters, trappers and moonshiners from Georgia. The Bakers were Palm Beach County lawmen. The two families warred more fiercely than the Hatfields and McCoys and, in the end, the Ashleys were all but exterminated by their nemesis, Sheriff Bobby Baker.

"Only the godawful desperate or the plain goddamned could ever live out there."

The story quickly unfolds when Blake's young hero, John Ashley, kills DeSoto Tiger while delivering a load of his father's whiskey to an Indian Camp. From that point forward, John Ashley is a hunted man, and the Ashley Clan is marked. Bobby Baker and John Ashley became rivals three years before when John was 15 and stole the girl 19-year-old Bobby wanted to marry. Then he stole his wooden leg the first time "daddy's little deputy" tried to arrest him. A few years later, Bobby gets some revenge after a botched bank robbery and shootout, and he runs down John Ashley in a swamp. Ashley had been shot in the face. Bobby cruelly thumbs out his eye before hauling him off to jail. Brown-eyed John, now with a glass blue one, escapes from a chain gang, and the all-out murderous war between the Ashleys and the Bakers escalates until that infamous night at the Sabastian River bridge a decade later.

"The Ashley Gang is a historical reality," and Blake leaves no doubt that the profound tragedy of these events did happen. The Ashley boys and the Baker boys fought to the death and killed hundreds of others who got in their way. How it happened is a matter of Blake's remarkable ability to tell a story, and the way he effortlessly makes his characters roar to life until the blood and viscera pour off the page.

Red River Grass: A Legend, like the Western before it, should be another blue-ribbon prize winner. Blake's reverential tone and elegant style renders historic detail with the same similar precision and beauty and affection for words as Cormac McCarthy. He is almost that good. (Avon, cloth, $23)

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