From Tolkien to Thompson, from Baum to Kerouac, some of the greatest works of fiction unfold as road trips that seem to happen in real time, as a couple of friends bounce from one adventure to the next – with the reader tagging along.
The road that John Bellamy takes in The Last Florida Boy, the just -published novel from St. Petersburg’s Tom Gribbin, isn’t always pretty. A lot of it, in fact, is paved with false promises and the detritus of a failed romance.
That would be the “romance” of pot smuggling, which lured many Florida boys in the 1970s and early ‘80s into thinking they were the swashbuckling characters in a Jimmy Buffett song.
John Bellamy is running from that life, although he doesn’t know what he’s running towards. And The Last Florida Boy captures the piratical zeitgeist of the era perfectly, as Bellamy – the novel’s narrator – weighs the adrenaline rush against the very real possibility of prison doors slamming shut forever.
“If you were around during those times, it was before it got nasty,” says Gribbin, vice president of Big3 Entertainment, a longtime musician and songwriter and (for 15 years) a practicing attorney. “Before organized crime got involved, before cartels, before guys carrying a lot of guns around. Before high-tech and dark money.
“I do know guys who were woven into that. There were guys I knew who got involved, and then turned away from it. What I did was try and capture the conundrum of ‘it used to be fun – and now it’s not fun any more.’ There were people who realized, suddenly, things are changing.”
Gribbin, who as an appellate lawyer prevailed in several cases set before the U.S. Supreme Court, discovered his knack for creative writing at the University of Florida School of Law – a professor pointed out that his legal writing (an art in itself) showed a certain entertaining flair most others in the class didn’t seem to have.
His time in Gainesville coincided with the 1974 trial of the “Steinhatchee Seven,” a group of Gulf Coast fisherman making easy money by bringing in bales of marijuana, at night, on their boats. “Since I knew a couple of the guys from St. Pete,” Gribbin explains, “and I wanted to meet their famous defense lawyer, Percy Foreman, I attended the trial every day and went out to dinner with them each night.
“As the facts unfolded at the trial, I was intrigued and entertained by the underlying story, and how it reflected on the times.”
Ever restless, his law career became a career in music – Tom Gribbin and the Saltwater Cowboys made two albums and became stars in England – and in the mid 1980s, Gribbin co-founded the Coconuts Comedy Club chain, in St. Pete. “From ’85 on, that’s when the comedy business blossomed,” he explains. “The golden age of comedy. Now, you can see it all on TV, but back in ’86 when we opened the first Coconuts, comedy clubs were the hot thing.”
Along the way, at every remarkable turn and shimmy in his own life and career, Tom Gribbin was taking mental notes.
That’s why, midway through The Last Florida Boy, John Bellamy buddies up with a Lenny Bruce-like comedian named Don Diamond.
They have their own frenetic co-adventures, like Frodo and Samwise, Raul Duke and Dr. Gonzo, Sal and Dean.
And yes, like young Dorothy and her bizarro pals from Oz.
Gribbin says he never planned for Bellamy to follow his own path into the world of comedy clubs. “When I started the book, I didn’t see him going there. And all of a sudden, there he was.”
It was almost as if the author was not in control. “It’s kind of like when you’re an actor in a play – I just stayed in character,” Gribbin says. “When I was writing, I’d lock myself in, and be in this guy. I didn’t know he was going to Panama City, for example – I just followed the thread of how it would unfold.
“And then I was plugging in true stories along the way, so that when you read it everything seems true. I let him take me where we went; it was a really interesting ride. Once I landed in, say, Jacksonville, I let him lead me and then I took over again. Then I let him take me to the next level.”
John Bellamy learns some hard lessons in The Last Florida Boy, about friendship, loyalty, love won and lost … and about himself.
Tom Gribbin knows about all of that stuff, too.
“The book is written in the first person,” he laughs, “so everybody is going to assume I was on that shrimp boat, I was on that plane … ‘he led an exciting pirate life.’ Those who know me will say ‘Oh, he knows a guy who did that.’
“I wasn’t on that shrimp boat. I’m going to let the reader make up stories or assume certain things. Because it adds a mystery to the book.
“In the end, I’m trying to weave together all the interesting people that I’ve met. More than the interesting experiences I’ve had.”