Red Grass River: A Legend

James Carlos Blake, Author Avon Books $23 (384p) ISBN 978-0-380-97493-1

Evoking the primal extravagance of the vanished South Florida wilderness, L.A. Times Book Prize-winner Blake (In the Rogue Blood) offers up a spellbinding tale of an outlaw, the scion of a family gang, and his exploits in the first quarter of the century, narrated by an old man who knew the hero from an admiring distance. In 1911, delivering whiskey for his bootlegger father, 18-year-old John Ashley kills a drunken Indian in self-defense and is forced to become a fugitive, partly because of a romantic rivalry with the sheriff's son. After he flees to Texas, boredom, more than necessity, prods Ashley to rob a bank, and he returns to Florida flush with cash. In and out of jails and prison over a short span of years, young Ashley becomes Florida's most famous outlaw. Serving a 17-year sentence at the beginning of WWI, he escapes and resumes his exploits as a hard-drinking, whore-hopping rum runner and bank robber. Inevitably, he is dealt a long overdue, but not unwelcome, comeuppance when he falls head over heels in love with a beautiful swamp Amazon who is more than his match. This outlaw family saga is set against the infamous development and despoilation of the Everglades as papa Joe fights off the local law and the Chicago mob's invasion of the rich bootleg liquor market. Family loyalties, feral mysticism and the inexorable erosion of a way of life are grandly imagined in this vivid saga of a freewheeling past. Author tour. (Oct.)