The debut novel of Caleb Johnson, Treeborne, opens with the elderly Janie Treeborne recounting possible, probable facts to a young relative where she explains how she came to live on her peach orchard; yet with the opening line (“The water was coming”), the novel forebodes a simmering presence underneath both the land and the story Janie unravels.
Janie and the rest of the Treebornes have lived on the edge of Elberta, Alabama seeingly as long as the land existed — or at least since the conquistadors from Spain came and went. In Treeborne, readers get almost the entire history of both the family and fictional Elberta, Alabama; however, to summarize the story does no justice to the beauty of the work therein. This is no mere history lesson of a made-up town.
Somehow Johnson has managed to fabricate a cast of characters so real, so vivid, so unlike any other set of people that it feels as if you could complete a Google search on each name and find a dusty, torn, black-and-white photo of each one, stained yellow and brown with the years and tears. There’s Tammy, strong willed and eager to make it to Hollywood where the moving pictures are made; young Janie, a strange and wild beauty cut from nature itself; Hugh Treeborne, closest to a patriarch the Treebornes have and a folk artist long before there ever was such a term; Lee Malone, the life-long friend of the Treebornes, so often internally torn asunder for his desires and race in a pre-Civil Rights Movement Alabama. It’s a complex narrative that Johnson weaves. The wonder of it is that the layered complexity never hinders the story nor makes it reading it a bore. Far from it.
While the cast is both diverse and wild, the one that haunts the entirety of the work, although his narrative lies mostly on the periphery, is the has-been football player Ricky Birdsong, damaged from multiple hits to the head, living somewhere between disabled and independent, pitiful. Ricky stands as a symbol of the retardation in the definition of the word rarely used: a musical suspension that resolves upward. It’s Ricky’s story that is perhaps the most profound in a novel where every person is rendered with love (and the heartbreak that so often ensues). Nothing is forever, after all. Ricky is also the key to one of the novel’s multitude of themes: a review of the past will only reveal the dreams that have been destroyed, damaged, changed by outside forces. There is immense pain to be had in such reflection. It’s a melancholy thought, but there’s wisdom in Johnson’s prose, elegantly stated when he writes of a character “[k]illing the future for the posterity of a moment that’d soon become past.” So much of the novel jumps from the pages. Johnson slyly begins with little pathos early in Janie’s narration only to knock you out midway through the novel with streams of emotional moments that build toward currents.
Treeborne isn’t purely obsessed in the morbidity and trappings of life’s discarded goals. There are plenty of moments of humor as well. Often reminiscent of Charles Portis, the hilarity colors a number of scenes, from a young would-be kidnapper farting out of nervousness to the residents’ rich vernacular (which, by the way, is very realistic of Alabamians of its time and place).
In a balancing act to marvel, there are also numerous moments of oddities that have turns of downright horror. To share these would only spoil the creepiness that the novel hides in its darkest corners.
The richness of the writing is almost unfathomable for a debut. It’s a novel that is as lived-in as a favorite shirt; sections will remind readers of remnants of an era that linger around grandparents’ trailers and workshops or old libraries and maps, no matter the locale.
Johnson’s book is a must read; it will stay with readers long after the ending, much like how the land that bore each of us still dictates who were are and what dreams are destined to live and die.