Tribulations of Rural Floridians

A review of The Patron Saint of Birds by Steve Lambert

Reviewed by Vern Smith

There’s a fair bit of journalism in Steve Lambert’s short fiction. By that, I mean he has real powers of observation when assessing the human condition of the denizens of Sahwoklee County. Or, put another way, he is keenly interested in documenting the tribulations of rural Floridians who have little to lose in such a way as to dignify the undignified.

From the opening story of his latest book, The Patron Saint of Birds, Lambert launches into “The Tragedy of Carter Simms,” which reads like a deeply informed column in the local newspaper, complete with a veiled prediction that the sins of the father will be visited upon the daughter. But it’s the hidden murder mystery about a wife and husband who hate each other in which Lambert demonstrates complete control of his dialogue. It’s as much about how characters who make up this loosely connected collection talk as it is about what they say, and clearly, Lambert has been listening. Either that, or he has a lot of imaginary friends from small-town Florida.

While crime is often at the forefront, the fiction is decidedly (and refreshingly) non-genre, something that paves the way in “Tightrope Walker” – the gem of the collection – for the incredibly human take on a man sentenced to house arrest who briefly forgets about his electronic tracking device, crosses the line, then decides to go on the last date he’ll go on for a while. For me, it conjured memories of truly great walking stories – such as “Curtis’s Charm” by Jim Carroll – while never ever crossing swords.

This is not poverty porn. No, this collection is about understanding what poverty will do to a person, the depths they will be driven to, particularly in times of sickness, and that can include selling one’s soul.

At different points in their lives, characters weave in and out of these works – such as Peg Vernon who famously won the catfish festival’s wet T-shirt contest every year from 1988 to 1991 – and that gives this collection just the right amount of flow. With pieces written both in the third and first-person, Lambert demonstrates excellent range in terms of story-telling, most notably when he convincingly adopts the voice of a young girl living on an abandoned bus.

Whether its kids playing a game of William Tell with a pellet gun or a man finding some semblance of peace in drag, these stories often deal with failed relationships, injury, ruined lives, and death. Nonetheless, there are moments of comic relief, lightness, and, dare I say hope. That’s not to say hope is always reasonable or even advisable, just that Lambert’s characters sometimes have it when they reasonably shouldn’t, and that is one but one of the attributes that allows them, in most cases, to survive just a little longer. It’s also something that makes them three-dimensional.

Putting together a short-story collection is always a pretty neat trick. They are bound to be uneven. And indeed, some stories here are better than others. However, given the concept-album approach, each piece plays a vital role in driving the concept to its conclusive title track, and that’s one of the many traits that makes this book a keeper.

<strong>Vern Smith</strong>
Vern Smith

Vern Smith is the author of the novels Under the Table (a payroll heist set on a Hollywood North TV shoot circa 1989) and The Green Ghetto (an urban western). His novelette, The Gimmick—a finalist for Canada’s highest crime-writing honor, the Arthur Ellis Award—is the title track of his second collection of fiction, The Gimmick: novelettes, stories, and sketches. He is currently editing a new crime-fiction anthology called Jacked, due out this summer on Run Amok Books.