One of the interesting things about Steph Post, to me, is that she’s gone through much of her growth as a writer in public. Her debut novel, A Tree Born Crooked, established her gift for place and for scraping its grit onto the page, but I felt it suffered from having an undercooked, largely offstage antagonist.
Lightwood represented a monster leap forward-definitely no problem with all manner of colorful antagonists and antagonism there-and was even more rich in the blood-and-booze-soaked red clay of north-central Florida. My only quibble with it was that the central character, Judah Cannon, prodigal son of a small-time crime clan, was a soft-focus cipher in comparison to the sharply drawn cast of crazies and crackers cuffing him around in all directions.
Walk in the Fire, Post’s third novel and the second in the Cannon saga, arrives as a fully formed story full of fully realized characters, Judah included. With his domineering father and older brother out of the picture, Judah must act rather than react, must plan and execute for the long haul. The central conflict for Judah is quickly established: Will he step up and seize the reins of the Cannon’s second-rate shakedown empire as everyone expects? Or will he honor his promise to the love of his life, Ramey, and leave their hometown and its malignant pull behind?
You know the answer as well I do. But, oh, how that answer spools out, as suspensefully as a man trying to reel in a game fish that might have more fight in it that anyone reckons. Judah’s best intentions get him pulled into a power struggle that involves not just Sister Tulah, the power behind the Pentecostal-on-PCP church that fronts for a criminal empire even more ambitious than that of the Cannon family, but a host of holy-shit others.
There’s Everett Weaver, a force of gun-crazed nature that abhors a criminal vacuum, who has a personal grudge against the Cannons. There’s Benji, the little Cannon brother whose injuries suffered during the events of Lightwood have left him bitter, impulsive and dangerous. There’s Shelia, the not-as-dumb-as-she-sounds knockaround girl whose conscience won’t quite leave her be. And there’s Brother Felton, who’s taken some baby steps back from his Aunt Tulah but can’t quite break away from the dominant figure in his passive existence.
My personal favorite is ATF Special Agent Clive Grant, a collection of colorful complications that only begin with being a black man with a badge in Crackerville USA. Post does an amazing job of making him into a man whose righteous obsessions run neck-and-neck with his remarkable ability to come up just short of justifying his presence, let alone establishing himself as an intimidating one.
Imagine a federal agent with high-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome, someone who lacks guile but also lacks an innate sense of how career games are played and how career cases are made. Rarely do federal agents get portrayed with such nuance; usually their “complexities” are rolled out as tropes: a violent past, an agitated relationship, a private sense of victimization by cardboard antagonists, etc. Grant, by comparison, is a stunning original.
But besides Judah, who finally makes some hard decisions independent of Ramey, Walk in the Fire is largely Sister Tulah’s show, and her show is a stunner. Another of Post’s great gifts is for filling pages with entertainingly over-the-edge ersatz evangelism that’s so distant from any form of Christianity we’d recognize as to create doubt over whether what Tulah believes in is even a Christian deity at all.
At a weekend getaway for her and her fellow nutjobs, we’re treated to pages of this:
Tulah looked at each of the Angels in turn. Like the Watchers, they wore long robes, though theirs looked as though they had been dipped in blood, and copper masks crowned with seven horns. Whereas the visages of the Watchers’ masks were featureless, the Angels’ each bore the likeness of the Spirit that had descended upon them. The radiant faces of an Ox, a Lion, an Eagle and a Man all beamed at Tulah and each Angel nodded to her in turn. She stepped to the Throne and held the sickle over the fire. The flames popped and spit, licking her wrist, but she couldn’t feel her flesh burning. Tulah dropped the sickle into the bowl and bowed her head.
I imagine Post cackling with mad glee as she created this perverted Pentecostalism. As much as I was cackling with mad glee as I read it.
Walk in the Fire is full of similarly inspired moments, and sumptuously crafted plot threads wrapping themselves around her sumptuously crafted characters like kudzu vines until they, and we, can scarcely breathe. Everything makes sense, and everyone surprises. It represents the intersection of Steph Post’s abundant talent with her growing command of story and character craft. It’s damned close to a perfect novel, and closes by dropping a damned-close-to-perfect cliffhanger in the next chapter in the Sister Tulah-Cannon saga. I, for one, cannot wait.