A Year In Reading: Nick Moran

December 3, 2016 | 2 books mentioned 18 5 min read

coverIn Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X trilogy, characters grow unhinged and obsessed. One undergoes a psychosis so fully that he physically morphs into a massive, slug-like creature wholly consumed with the task of writing on cavern walls with a glow-in-the-dark, living “ink.” The trilogy is fantastic not only in its plotting and characterization, but also in its depiction of this particular kind of creeping madness — this transformation from mundane to alien — and how that transformation begins gradually, then hastens, and becomes permanent. It’s striking how believable VanderMeer makes it seem. You read and think to yourself, could this happen to me?

Well, yes.

Consider: Three years ago I vowed to only read books based on, written in, or otherwise concerning the state of Florida. (I’ve mentioned this before.) It started out quaint enough. I worked my way through Peter MatthiessenJohn D.MacDonaldThomas McGuane, Carl Hiaasen, Padgett Powell, Charles Willeford, and almost all of Joy Williams. I got a Key West-themed bookmark and savored Elizabeth Bishop’s Florida poems. I sought out recommendations from friends, and that’s how I discovered Jennine Capó Crucet, Craig Pittman, and Nick Vagnoni.

My to-read pile soon warranted its own shelf, and that shelf soon annexed others. Now I have a Florida bookcase, and certain shelves within that Florida bookcase are home to works on certain Floridian sub-themes: football (inarguably the best in the country!), nature (arguably the best in the country!), and politics (inarguably the worst in the country!).

Tchotchkes have accumulated. I have a staple remover that looks like an alligator’s mouth; I have a backscratcher that looks like an alligator’s claw. My refrigerator has a lot of magnets featuring anthropomorphic suns. (Question: Why do anthropomorphic suns always wear sunglasses?) A few months back, I began a series of paintings based on Florida’s wildlife. I hadn’t painted in more than a decade, but suddenly I had the itch.


Florida’s crept into my spinal column — slithered in like an invasive boa constrictor — and coiled itself around my brainstem. I start each day with an email round-up of Florida’s news headlines. I end most days with a different one. I imagine Florida cinched around my medulla, throbbing once to let me know there’s a book about the state’s foreclosure crisis, or secreting sucrotic refinery byproduct to let me know Dave Barry’s got a new book out. (It wasn’t as good as Pittman’s.)

To return to the VanderMeer analogy: consider me your alien man-slug, obsessively slinking deeper down into the cavern of insanity, fixated only on complete submergence into all things Sunshine. Much like how people don’t so much inhabit Florida as they bruise her, an interest in Florida leaves visible marks as well.

Fortunately, Florida as a concept inspires a lot of works for me to read, and Florida as an incubator of talent produces a lot of creative people. I’ve had little trouble finding new things to read. While I’ve gone through most of the well-known books, I’m now happy to investigate the deeper cuts. Everybody knows about Marjory Stoneman Douglas, but how many have read Don Blanding’s Floridays? People the world over are interested in the Everglades, but how many would willingly read a crappy e-book written by something no less Floridian: a C-grade club promoter? How many of you would read Burt Reynolds’s memoir solely because he went to Florida State University?

I’m mostly unashamed to say: I would, and I have.

By now, it may be hard to take me seriously, but hang on. Less well-known Florida works aren’t all bad. There are rabbits in the muck if you’re willing to chase them down. The carcasses of boars and headless goats wash ashore with the tides, but so does Cafe Bustelo. And while I’d argue that sifting through the filth to get to the treasure heightens your enjoyment of those riches (and probably also builds character), I realize not everyone has the time or inclination to consume so indiscriminately. Therefore, what follows is a list of the three best lesser-known Florida-related books I’ve read this year. Enjoy!

Naked in Garden Hills by Harry Crews. Determining Crews’s finest Florida novel is a conversation best had with a well-read friend over a couple drinks, preferably in a public place just in case tempers do flare to the point where witnesses might be needed. I won’t try to do that here, but I submit that Naked in Garden Hills is the Crews novel that’s most representative of Florida, or at least the qualities we’ve come to accept as particularly Floridian: unsettling strangeness and capitalism’s worst effects. Set in a weird, sunken town built on an abandoned phosphate pit and populated by all sorts of bizarre characters — one is reminded, in a way, of the “HumbugX-Files episode — Naked in Garden Hills tracks the forsaken also-rans left behind after corporations leech the life out of a place and leave only its husk behind.

coverNine Island by Jane Alison. Sex is essential to Miami, but Alison’s treatment is wholly distinct from the more typical, desirous leer of authors like Tom WolfeNine Island concerns an older, divorced woman living alone in a Miami Beach high-rise, determined to find happiness, but at times uncertain of her ability to do so. It interrogates the relationships between solitude and loneliness, sexual desire and actual sex, and youth and wisdom. It’s a delight. I took three of Alison’s writing courses years ago at the University of Miami, and in one of them she had us read Susan Minot’s excellent story, “Lust,” in which a woman matter-of-factly catalogs her sexual partners. Her voice is fascinating: both playful and bleak; simultaneously celebrating conquest while acknowledging the complicated, often painful feelings wrought from the pursuit and consummation of desire. Toward the end, that voice shifts from first to the second person, and with that shift the speaker’s lessons gleaned from years of her own sexual activity are transformed into universal prescriptions — personal memories turned to generalized ache and forlorn warning. In Nine Island, Alison’s taken elements of “Lust” and not only stretched them out, but reoriented them — taken a young woman’s premature world-weariness and transferred it to a woman farther along in life, with more experience under her belt and less time for self-pity.

Eight Miami Poets from Jai Alai Books. As a rule, every New York Times article about Miami is absolute trash (and now that it’s Art Basel week, it’s doubly true). I believed that even before they ran that condescending opinion piece last year. Indeed, I’ve come to expect a level of dismissal from all New York-based publications when it comes to evaluations of Miami’s cultural scene. Perhaps it’s jealousy? Miami is much prettier than New York, and there’s no denying it smells better. Yet even still, I was unprepared for a blithe statement quoted by Elizabeth Kolbert in her otherwise interesting New Yorker article about climate change’s effects on Magic City. The line, spoken by a Miami resident (who should know better!) was: “I’m sure if we had poets, they’d be writing about the swallowing of Miami Beach by the sea.” Man, what are you talking about!? Miami has tons of poetry; it has an entire month dedicated to it! In fact, as Exhibit A in the case against this man, I offer as evidence Jai Alai Books’s terrific anthology, Eight Miami Poets, featuring the work of Miami-Dade County-based writers. Topics covered: opioid addiction, palmetto bugs, and, yes, the existential threat of sea-level rise. I rest my case.

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works on special projects for The Millions. He lives in Baltimore and he frequents dive bars. His interests can be followed on his Tumblr, Nick Recommends and Twitter, @nemoran3.


  1. The Area X trilogy is heavy, heady and wildly thicketed with strangely morphing creatures and their doings, which is pretty much how I imagine the actual Everglades.

    Florida poets — thank you for this! What do we of the other 49 states know of your dense, green, fetid, peninsular world — cheers for another great piece and entree to something that isn’t LA or Brooklyn.

  2. You’re spot on with that evaluation, priskill.

    In addition to the ones mentioned here, I also recommend checking out four more Florida poet/ms:

    Mia Leonin’s “How To Name a City” is so damn good.

    Donald Justice’s “Variations on a Text by Vallejo” begins with one of the most stellar opening lines of all time.

    You cannot talk Florida poetry without talking Campbell McGrath.

    And then lastly I just read Ted Mathys’s “Key to the Kingdom“, recommended to me by P. Scott Cunningham. The poem’s third stanza absolutely floored me – not least of all because I think it’s the first time a published poem has mentioned “flakka.”

  3. Nick, do you have an Etsy shop yet so I can buy one of your paintings?!

    Also, you should totally submit an Op-Ed to the NYT about Florida. DO IT.

  4. Edan, DM/email me an address and a species and I’ll send you one free of charge! (If you don’t specify a species it’s dealer’s choice.)

    I would love to correct the NYT’s institutional view of Miami, but I weigh pros and cons all the same. On the one hand, I want NY to recognize that Miami is better than what they think; on the other hand, I don’t want NYers to come down and turn Miami into Williamsburg South. I suppose the latter is inevitable, so I might as well get to it…

  5. I am going to email you! YES!!!! Thank you.

    I think you could write something not about Florida as a glorious place to travel but just about your literary immersion has influenced your experience of place. I’d love to read that in my Sunday paper in the best place on Earth, aka CALIFORNIA.

  6. Hey, thanks for the mention! I’d definitely add Spencer Reece’s book The Clerk’s Tale to your list, especially if you like Bishop. Also, while Bishop’s Key West poems are great, her letters from KW are probably my favorite.

  7. @ Nick, oh, nice tip on the Reece. Added!

    Are Bishop’s letters collected anywhere?

    P.S. Are you a Don’s Place or a Monkey Bar guy? Personally I’m a ride or die Chart Room guy.

  8. Her KW letters are in a collection of letters called One Art. My dad runs the Green Parrot, and I grew up there, so that’s usually where I go when I’m home.

  9. So many great Florida books. “A Land Remembered” by Patrick Smith is still wonderful to this day. Not really lesser known, but somehow forgotten with all the FL mystery writers. Also, “Totch: A Life in the Everglades” was a great memoir. Thanks for your year in reading. After 41 years living in the Sunshine State, new recommendations are always welcome.

  10. @ Andy: I’ve somehow put off A Land Remembered all this time, but now I’m bumping it up my list. Thank you. Totch is a wonderful read. The Everglades sub-category of Florida writing is disproportionately great. Shadow Country is a standout, but even the swampy scenes from Hiaasen’s Tourist Season were remarkable. Something about that swamp is a Midas-like muse – capable of turning even the most ordinary narrative into gold. And 41 years – hot damn!

    @ Nick: Oh damn, that’s awesome. Your dad is living my dream.

  11. Nick, I’m always on the lookout for Florida fiction and poetry and you’ve given me some new titles to look up–thanks!
    Strangely, Florida keeps cropping up in the most unlikely novels I’ve been reading, Natasha Solomons’_ The Song of Hartgrove Hall_, and Preston & Child’s _The Obsidian Chamber_, but only in a minor way.
    One of my latest chapbooks, The Ocean Between, (unpublished but some of the poems therein have been), contains a half section of Florida poems.
    I really like your illustrations, too! The alligator is fantastic! Do you have a bird of some type?
    The Area X trilogy is on my reading list as well Eight Miami Poets!

  12. Isn’t that uncanny, Beatriz? Once you start noting Florida’s appearances, suddenly you see her everywhere you look. I went through the same thing last year. I tried to take a break from reading obviously Florida-related works, but even my “escape” reads – Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire, or Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings – featured bits of the Sunshine State.

    And I do have some birds, actually. I did a flamingo and a white ibis. They’re way more challenging – the feathers are difficult to render. I’m thinking of expanding now to the most Floridian animal of them all: the mosquito.

    I’m going to track down your poems!

  13. Wow, thanks for these suggestions, Nick, and everyone else. I was so happy to find echoes of Vallejo in Justice and the divine Bishop in the Mathys piece.Great lit begets great lit. And the essay is wonderful. Love that this is all new to me — will be checking into these, thanks!

  14. Oh, thank you for this @languagehat!

    Speaking of Russian-Floridian connections: Did you know Leo Tolstoy’s grandson was one of the principal founders of Marineland, SeaWorld’s 1930s-era precursor? And also the place they filmed Creature from the Black Lagoon?

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