WHAT TO READ IN THE HAMMOCK WHEN THE HOT TUB SPRINGS A LEAK

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Last spring I bought Comets by Florida author Joseph Allen Costa. It’s a collection of linked stories—something I tried with my first novel, Blue Rubber Pooland is set near where I used to live. Although summers at Pineapple Hill are for reading the books I review and winters are for writing novels of my own, my routine in 2021 was sidetracked by a leaky valve in the hot tub then an unexpected request to “revise and resubmit.” Time slipped away like my cat does—with sneaky stealth and speed.


Plan B was to take Comets along on my Christmas/New Year’s vacation to a tiny bridgeless sea island between Hilton Head and Savannah, but on Daufuskie that week there was too much rum for reading.

Finally, back at my little farm in the boonies, I was able to bring the novel up to the second floor porch, where it was breezy but warm enough for bare feet and just cargo shorts and a tee. I brought Comets into the Pawley’s Island hammock with a cup of coconut-flavored coffee and the last hints of a hangover, a vacation from my vacation. Immediately, I connected with this book. (The publisher released another book I liked: Ben Stempton’s Boy by Southern writer Ron Yates.)

The stories take place in Ybor City, where Tampa’s cigar factories used to be and where I first fell in love with Cuban culture, first hung out in small Cuban restaurants—old men with black framed glasses and black berets read Spanish language newspapers while I lunched on a chunk of Cuban bread and bowl of black bean soup, the two dollar special. Opposite the flashy, neon colored Ybor City night life is the gritty, raggedy community of small businesses barely kept alive by people just a paycheck or two away from homelessness. In Comets, a cabinet shop sits exposed to the world by big garage doors open to release sawdust and toxic fumes while allowing in the chickens running loose among a motley crew of workers and the  three-legged dog that briefly is their mascot.

In Comets, people struggle against nature, themselves, and each other as if adrift aboard a rotted lifeboat. Their experiences are described with an honest eye and an unencumbered voice. There is battle and blood yet also humor, warmth, and generosity. The author gives it to us straight—adding special touches without ruining the blue collar tone. Expressions such as Ugly as hunger and He woke in a room so dark it made his eyes hurt, and Her face was the planet Earth with broad hills and valleys and life exploding from every pore are perfectly timed to further intrigue us.

We are made to connect with the characters and backstories in Comet. They stick to us like cabinet shop glue, walk around in our minds like three-legged dogs and chickens running loose. Get the book. Because when you close your eyes against the white hot glare of Tampa’s steel and glass or for respite from its razor-edged nightlife, these stories will be waiting, waiting in Tampa and every other town, waiting on you to remember the gristle on the bone.