I love references, how they operate like conversational shorthand. When I describe the main character of The Invitation as “a store-brand Chris Stapleton,” I feel clever and efficient. If brevity is the soul of wit, then references are the bees of conversation, pollinating subjects by imbuing them with meaning from someplace else. Of course, the trouble with references is how they rely on a shared cultural vocabulary, and what’s double is that often my most apt referents are obscure. For better and more often worse, I forge ahead. (Oh, to hell with universality!) I watch Raising Arizona and ask my wife, “is that John C. Reilly on a motorcycle?” She thinks I’m serious. I say my 4-month-old daughter’s flailing arms remind me of Joe Cocker and my friend humors me with a closed lip smile, but I doubt his familiarity with “Space Captain.” After reading a profile in the New Yorker, I tell my coworker that Poo-Pourri’s founder seems like “a cross between Tony Robbins and Aldous Huxley,” and from her expression I know I’ve failed.
“Sick reference, bro,” says Jonah Hill in This Is the End, just before high-fiving Jay Baruchel. “Your references are out of control; everyone knows that.” (Oh, to always hit the mark!) Yet how deceptively difficult: to connect two far-flung details takes skill, but to correctly guess beforehand that both details are known by your peers…Reader, that’s genius. All year, I’ve drawn parallels and blasted them out like buckshot, unsure if most will stick. I’ve bridged gaps ignorant of whether people know what lies on the other side. I say things like, “Tolstoy is to Sunset Boulevard as Dostoevsky is to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,” and I want people to understand not only the antic madness of the latter, but also that I obviously prefer Dostoevsky. Alas, when I’ve done so in person, I’ve mostly misfired. When I’ve done so on Twitter, I’ve earned modest faves. Maybe here I’ll do better.
In the recognition of patterns, the world is enriched. In the recognition of too many, things get weird. One of my neighborhood’s dividing lines is Falls Road. To the east lies a hip neighborhood filled with artists and yuppies. To the west is what my realtor calls “little West Virginia.” Farther outside of Baltimore is a place called Dundalk, which some say is lousy with “waterbillies.” How uncanny, then, to sit on my porch reading Patrick Radden Keefe’s superb Say Nothing, in which Falls Road bisects the Catholic and Protestant sides of Belfast, and in which gun runners go on the lam in nearby Dundalk, County Louth.
Native Baltimorean Adrienne Rich wrote of “that estranged intensity / where [man’s] mind forages alone,” and I think of that when my references don’t work. I also thought of it when, midway through her Selected Poems: 1950-2012, I read “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” set in the American southwest—chiefly because it reminded me of another book, the best one I read all year. “This is the desert where missiles are planted like corns,” Rich wrote of an area near New Mexico, and voila, there I was, foraging alone in my recollection of Joshua Wheeler’s Acid West.
Maybe I like Wheeler’s essays so much because they, too, are stuffed with references. His essays position New Mexico as the spoke of the weirdest wheel on earth, just as Sam Anderson’s Boom Town positioned Oklahoma City as the country’s microcosmic center. Both books demonstrate there’s no such thing as insignificant detail; all seeds blossom in time. “When you encounter something seemingly meaningless, you can accept the numbness of it or ache for profundity,” Wheeler wrote. “I tend toward the ache.” (Hear hear.) Wheeler’s book has the additional allure of dwelling on one of my fascinations: maudlin drinking. (His acknowledgements page shouts out four different dive bars.) “I don’t want her money,” Wheeler wrote about his grandmother, who tried to offer him some. “I’d only waste it at the bar, trying to drink myself into the future.” That line sounds straight out of The Big Clock, Kenneth Fearing’s spectacular noir novel, which like Wheeler’s book punctuates many of its drunken asides with the phrase, “Well, all right.”
Speaking of alcohol, Hamm’s had a big year with me. There it was in Tom Drury’s The End of Vandalism, which I wish the Coen Brothers would adapt. There it was again in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, being sold cheaper in an Arizona bar than at the Crest Cafe from A Woman Under the Influence. While watching the latter film I thought, I’ve read Lucia Berlin before.
Frank Bidart wrote, “there is a beast within you // that can drink till it is // sick, but cannot drink till it is satisfied.” In Turtle Diary, Russell Hoban’s protagonist says, “I don’t feel as if I’m living unless I’m killing myself.” To thirst endlessly and to flirt with oblivion: these are the impulses pulling men together in Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special, the second-best book I read this year. (Those themes also power Lindsay Hunter’s Eat Only When You’re Hungry, which I read last year but need to shout out again.)
Sometimes I observe superficial patterns, and other times I observe something deeper. Reading Jia Tolentino’s “Ecstasy” essay in Trick Mirror, which is about church, that eponymous drug, Houston, and DJ Screw, I wished I was back in school so I could write about it being “in conversation with” the first story in Jennine Capó Crucet’s How to Leave Hialeah, which is about church, that same drug again, Miami, and Celia Cruz. Reading Franny Choi’s Soft Science, which was sublime, I thought a lot about the android personae in Janelle Monae’s first album, which was as well. Reading Karen Russell’s “Tornado Auction” in Orange World, the third-best book I read this year, I thought not only of its inspiration, a photograph by Andrew Moore, but also of how that fondness for twisters is echoed by lines in “Tornado Season” from Bruce Snider’s Paradise, Indiana: “I wanted to be carried— / green sky, sudden hail—with everything / I knew: blue spruce, white pine, the grey- / shingled bars of Whitley County, face / of the barber and his sharpened razor, / Marie at the Waffle House, Beau / Tucker over mufflers in his shop.” Come to think of it, 80% of the reason I bought Colette Arrand’s chapbook The Future is Here and Everything Must be Destroyed was because its cover referenced Waffle House. I’m glad I did it, and you should do the same.
Other times I observe patterns that are thematic. I think the moss hunter in Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory belongs in the canon of workplace weirdos alongside the levitating accountant in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, the psychotic closet-dwelling scientist in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, the dude with the “bee-beard” in that story from Ryan Boudinot’s The Littlest Hitler, the obvious scammers skulking about Paul Murray’s The Mark and the Void, and frankly everybody in Helen Dewitt’s Lightning Rods. From now on, when I mention this specific sub-canon, you’ll get the reference.
Elsewhere constellations were mapped by sheer happenstance. It was serendipity that my daughter, born about a week ahead of schedule, arrived one day after I watched Eraserhead, the world’s worst movie to view in those circumstances. Not two weeks prior, I’d finished Ironweed, which bears the same mantle among books. Fortunately, before both I’d read three books that, in their open dealings with its associated anxiousness, actually braced me for the realities of parenthood. Many reviewers have remarked on the titular story in Karen Russell’s Orange World being a parable of motherhood, but similar themes actually coarse through the entire book. In fact, the most affecting treatment of fatherhood I’ve ever read was in the tornado story I just referenced above. Also, while I enjoyed Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State and Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything enormously when I read them months before, it was not until those first weeks home with my new daughter that their powers were revealed. This is why I tell people now: whether you’re expecting or not, these books are outstanding. They will whisper to you down the road.
Most of the references that occur to me elude easy explanation, making them impossible to drop in casual conversation. Suffice it to say that, in one story in particular, Taeko Kōno’s Toddler-Hunting gives off big Takashi Miike vibes. Suffice it to say that the best sections of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men would rival the best sections of John McPhee’s Coming Into the Country were it not for Agee’s leering horniness. Suffice it to say that the narrator in Ryan Chapman’s Riots I Have Known reminds me of Sideshow Bob in a good way. (Writing to Selma Bouvier from prison: “Your latest letter caused a riot in the maximum security wing of my heart.”). Suffice it to say that when I read Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, I was struck by the line, “A bore at home, he transformed in the city. // What’s yours at home is a wolf in my city” because it made me think about how in life most men are Kevin Finnerty while in their minds most men are Tony Soprano in Las Vegas. Suffice it to say, suffice it to say, suffice it to say…
“No one ever came to my door in searching – / for you, no one, except for you -,” wrote Canisia Lubrin in Voodoo Hypothesis. There’s a recursive desire to move inward, to burrow, to coil like the Guggenheim in Bilbao. When I tell you this line haunts me as much as the one on the second page of Jake Skeets’s Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers, I mean it, and I want you to know them both automatically; I don’t want to explain them further. “Some people say history moves in a spiral,” wrote Ocean Vuong in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a novel which deliberately lacks conflict. Of all these forms, Jane Alison’s Meander Spiral Explode has much to say, because Alison’s book is one that identifies patterns, that draws upon references to do so. It was the fourth-best book I read this year. In college, she read us a story about the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
Every day I wonder about the threshold of commonality required to make casual references, because every day I read references to supposedly canonical things I fail to grasp. These can be low-brow: if you’ve ever referred to Saved by the Bell, you’ve lost me, because I’ve never seen it. Ditto pro wrestling. These can also be high-brow: Few allusions to Greek philosophers work on me; I don’t know enough Shakespeare to get most mentions of him. Still, I possess references you cannot possibly know. Before beating USC, Vince Young said he warmed up to a chopped and screwed version of T.I.’s “Tha King.” That’s stuck with me since tenth grade. It’s been my warm-up song since—for everything, even pumpkin picking. There are some things we never lose. You might say Twitter is a project of crowdsourced reference-making: the most basic and universal observations go viral because they are the most widely understood, while deeper cultural in-jokes amuse only niche audiences—if that—even when their connections work much better. All of us are in our own orbits with the world, each viewing but one face of the cultural sphere. The one I see will always be different from yours, but damned if I won’t try to show it to you.
At the local brewery some months ago, I sat next to a guy in a Mississippi State quarter-zip while he waited to fill his Mississippi State-branded growler. (We were nowhere near Mississippi.) The speakers played Vampire Weekend. I put down The Last Whalers because I got distracted by reality: my coworker is the sister of Mississippi State’s basketball coach, and Ezra Koenig quoted my stepbrother in our high school yearbook. (Life’s rich pageant!) Who could read about Lamalerans at a time like that? As always, who can think of anything but that line from Brian Phillips’s outstanding collection Impossible Owls, the fifth-best book of my year: “What overwhelms is not the meaninglessness of the universe but the coexistence of an apparent meaninglessness with the astonishing interconnectedness of everything.”
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In 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?
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 Matthiessen, John D.MacDonald, Thomas 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 “Humbug” X-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.
Nine 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 Wolfe. Nine 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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Two years ago I moved from Hoboken to Baltimore and I marked the occasion in the typical fashion: by pledging to read books only set in, connected to, or written by authors from the state of Florida. My rationale and the precise reasons for its timing elude me to this day. I didn’t think much of it; it simply felt natural. Maybe it had something to do with my relocation occurring during the winter, when the northern air thins out and becomes painful enough to make me crave the amniotic coat of tropical humidity. Perhaps it’s explained as psycho-geographic regression. The places I’ve inhabited longest are New Jersey and Florida, and if I was definitely leaving one to settle someplace new, then I suppose it’s natural to yearn for the comforts of the other home I know best. Hell, it might’ve been because I was three years out of college and I missed Miami. Who can really say? Who cares? The short of it is: I made my decision, and I moved forward.
What followed was equal parts overwhelming, disorienting, and hallucinatory. That much Florida does a man no good – and that’s doubly true when the man in question lacks any semblance of restraint. See, I wasn’t content to make a structured list and to steadily chip away at it. On the contrary, what I desired most was total immersion, or better yet submergence. So deep ran the currents of my obsession that at one point I set up Google alerts pairing the word “Florida” with random nouns. (You don’t appreciate the depth of Florida’s strangeness until one day you get two different news stories detailing pork chop-related violence: Exhibit A, Exhibit B.)
In two years, I made my way across the foundation of Florida writing: Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s River of Grass and Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country; Michael Grunwald’s The Swamp, John McPhee’s Oranges, and Arva Moore Parks’s Miami; Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, and Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro. (More on those over here.) I reread Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and I dipped into poetry by Campbell McGrath, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Blanco, and Donald Justice. Mia Leonin dazzled me and Alissa Nutting creeped me out. With increasingly deep breaths, I inhaled Carl Hiaasen’s entire God damned oeuvre until I felt like I was having a psychic asthma attack.
That didn’t quite scratch the itch, though, so I supplemented my reading with other art forms as well. It began last winter when I fell asleep reading Joy Williams’s Florida Keys guide and had what I thought was a lucid dream about Islamorada, but was really just the beginning of a Bloodline episode playing as I woke up. I spent the next week plowing through the series. I followed Florida Man and Florida Woman on Twitter. I favorited more Craig Pittman tweets than I can count. I revisited Ace Ventura and There’s Something About Mary. I watched the Billy Corben triumvirate of Cocaine Cowboys, Dawg Fight, and The U, and I celebrated the premier of The U Part 2 by getting drunk off Jai Alai that I’d bulk ordered across state lines from a liquor store in Dunedin. I tried to watch Ballers but that thing’s like an even less deeply plotted Entourage, so…yeah. Meanwhile, I’ll never be ashamed of how much DJ Laz and Trick Daddy I’ve played. (Before anyone asks: Yes, I have donated to the latter’s Trickstarter.)
I watched both Magic Mike movies because nothing’s more quintessentially Tampa than the scene in the first one in which Channing Tatum scolds “Adam” for peeling off the protective plastic wrapper on his pick-up truck’s dashboard, which would totally kill the thing’s resale value. I read long, multi-part investigative news stories on widespread ecological destruction, for-profit college fraud, and government corruption. I contemplated buying prints from The Highwaymen and Clyde Butcher, but didn’t have the bankroll to go through with it.
Throughout this process, I’ve taken notes. To some extent, this was automatic. It’s something I’ve always done as I’ve read. It’s how I write, really: read first, take notes, and ideas for written work will follow. For this project, however, the Florida canon has become too big. Wrangling these disparate pieces would be like trying to limit the number of pythons invading the Everglades. It can’t be done.
Instead, I’m left with an unmanageable list of tidbits, direct quotations, and half-remembered ephemera lacking any semblance of a theme beyond their essential “Florida-ness.” Whereas on smaller projects my notes could serve as navigational buoys capable of guiding me back to an overall idea, these manic, unorganized Florida notes are what would happen if Hansel & Gretel threw their bread crumbs into a woodchipper. To wit, here are the six latest entries I’ve saved in my 1,700 row Excel document:
40% of dogs who shoot people live in Florida. (Source)
“A Miami suburb has been named as the ‘bidet capital of America'” (Source)
“Dead woman’s life insurance funding husband’s murder defense.” (Source)
“Florida man bit by shark catches shark, says he will eat it.” (Source)
“Cop fired for singing about killing with death-metal band.” (Source)
“How is Hendry County going to know how to handle massive monkey escapes during a hurricane?” (Source)
Where does the rabbit hole end? Is it possible to prismatically marry all of these disparate rays of weirdness into a single, unified beam?
This is all to say: for two years now, I’ve been steeped in Florida.
Of course, as with every rule, it was broken from time to time. Or, I should say, I tried to break it. As anyone who’s driven on a highway can tell you: once you notice one type of car, it’s all you’ll see thereafter. Reading works outside my Florida canon almost always meant I’d identify an unexpected Florida connection in the process. When I read Marlon James’s remarkable novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, I encountered what is certainly the only mention of Miramar to have ever been awarded the Booker prize. When I read City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg’s massive, hyper-localized depiction of New York City, one of the details that stuck out most was a throwaway passage about one character’s estranged daughter living in…well, where do you think?
More unsettling still: it’s often felt like Florida is the one seeking me out, or beckoning me from afar. (And I’m not talking about my alma mater’s alumni office calling for donations.) Maybe all of Florida is Area X. Indeed, this siren’s song can transverse spacetime. Imagine my surprise when I first watched Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video — a video so devoid of geographic setting that it takes place in a series of sterilized geometric patterns — and still find myself cognizant of the work’s Florida influence. Seriously, read this.
Truly, my year in reading has been two years in Florida, and as I look beyond to the years ahead, I see no reason to stop. Maybe I can’t. Maybe the essence of Florida inhabits me like one of the invasive species that’s inhabited it. There was an article this year about how scientists are baffled by a type of creeping, foreign mangrove invading Florida’s swamps — this colonizing plant to which sediments cling, muck becomes coated, and upon which land eventually forms. Nobody can explain the way the plants are acting, the way they’re resisting efforts to contain their spread. They are the essence of Florida, though: all that persistence, all that infestation.
Ultimately, the spirit of the Year in Reading series necessitates that I provide you all with specific titles to check out, and to fulfill that obligation, my choice is easy: the best book I read this year was Jennine Capó Crucet’s debut collection of stories, How to Leave Hialeah. In it, Crucet explores the variety of experience around the Miami metropolitan area and amongst its residents — its real residents; not the tourists, not the northeastern college kids who treat their stints at the University of Miami like a four-year Spring Break, and especially not the absentee condominium owners who’ve been driving up the city’s rents for years. No. Crucet grounds her stories within the mostly Cuban diaspora living in Hialeah and its surrounding environs: the community that, along with Miami’s extremely under-appreciated African-American and Afro-Caribbean residents, comprises the city’s beating heart — the ones who give South Florida an identity immediately distinct from that of anywhere else in the state, or really anywhere else in America.
In 11 stories, Crucet covers a remarkable amount of South Florida’s characteristic breadth: the Ecstasy-rolling girl seeking after-hours ablution (and Celia Cruz) in a church, the family politics of Nochebuena invites, the man who died in a Chili’s-related incident and left his roommate to deal with his pet ferret, and the children who find a body in a canal. She renders the complicated in-betweenness of immigrants straddling the Florida Straits between Cuba and their adopted homes, and how the younger generation oscillates between ambivalence and passion for the same. She examines these characters and their predicaments with closely-observed, generous authenticity, utilizing the vocabulary of their setting all the while: people’s hands and faces are said to be “the color of dried palm fronds;” a family’s closeness is described as being “like the heat in a car you’ve left parked in the sun;” a woman on the beach observes the way her date “leaned back on his elbows again, his nipples spreading away from each other, melting across his chest toward the pockets of his armpits.” These are moving, visceral glimpses at the myriad Miamis and Miamians. Even if you’ve never set foot down here, they’re not to be missed.
The collection’s title story — and also its last — tracks a young woman’s early life in semi-autobiographical detail as she’s raised in Hialeah, moves on to out-of-state college, and advances into a career beyond. It looks to the possibilities of a life outside of the one you know first, and it evokes a sense of wonder at the world beyond Florida. It also — and, by now you can tell I relate — makes clear that no matter how far away you go, you’ll never really leave it behind.
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Storm damage from Hurricane Eloise; Panama City, FL; Florida Memory
I’ve found no finer description of a hurricane than the one in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. It’s there, in the thick of the central Florida muck, that her characters Janie and Tea Cake encounter the full force of a storm so powerful, so destructive that it seems to move with its own agency, and to do whatsoever it pleases. It’s a storm so awesome that it seems distinct from the very laws of nature, from the forces of its own creation, and it resembles instead a malevolent beast with particular enemies. Anyone who’s hunkered down during a Category 3 or higher can relate: when the storm hits, it seems impossible that the earth could conjure something so devastating, could undo itself so completely.
Louder and higher and lower and wider the sound and motion spread, mounting, sinking, darking. It woke up old Okeechobee and the monster began to roll in his bed…Under its multiplied roar could be heard a mighty sound of grinding rock and timber and a wail. They looked back. Saw people trying to run in raging waters and screaming when they found they couldn’t…As far as they could see the muttering wall advanced before the braced-up waters like a road crusher on a cosmic scale. The monstropolous beast had left his bed…He seized hold of his dikes and ran forward until he met the quarters; uprooted them like grass and rushed on after his supposed-to-be conquerors, rolling the dikes, rolling the houses, rolling the people in the houses along with other timbers. The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.
It’s in those terrifying moments, after the clouds have bruised the sky into an all-encompassing black, that Hurston writes, “They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”
There are many ways to die in Florida, and a hurricane is only one. For example, you could be undone by the effects of sea-level rise — more than 3.7 inches since 1996 — which will soon turn Miami into America’s Atlantis. Then there are sink holes swallowing subdivisions into the state’s limestone maw. Florida is where Americans are most likely to be bitten by sharks and struck by lightning.
There are also trends that, while they may not immediately kill you, will completely alter the state’s identity, and could end life as we all know it. The reefs are being destroyed, the citrus is greening, and the swamp has been invaded by massive pythons, cat-eating lizards, and titanic rodents.
And that’s just nature. Pay attention to the “Florida Man” news stories long enough and you’ll wonder how anyone survives for more than a day in the state. It’s distressing enough to worry about natural furies beyond your control, but now you’ve also got to watch out for face-eating madmen and self-proclaimed demigods with dendrophilic tendencies. Even the act of dying seems particularly terrible in Florida, a state where corpses buried in the fertile soil can rise again on their own. (In that context, one suddenly understands the meaning behind that Patty Griffin song.)
All this considered, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Florida has been the setting for several works of pre-, post-, and regular apocalyptic fiction for more than 60 years. The state is a veritable Gashlycrumb nightmare, capable of ending your life in infinite ways, and so of course it serves as an energentic muse for writers interested in doomsday scenarios. What might surprise you, however, is that some of the most exciting works in the canon of “Floridapocalyptic” writing are not necessarily warnings about natural disasters and tropical storms. Rather, the four works below are more imaginative takes on the state’s doom, each offering a glimpse into yet another way that night could fall on the Sunshine State.
Spreading out from a lighthouse along a southern state’s “Forgotten Coast” there exists a forbidden zone. Here, under watch by several arms of the U.S. government, a mysterious mass slowly expands, forever altering everything that comes into contact with its creeping, invisible border. “It did not allow half measures,” notes one of the surveyors in Jeff VanderMeer’s outstanding Area X trilogy. “Once you touched it, it pulled you in (or across?).” Its sudden appearance is kept secret from ordinary citizens — even those residing in the surrounding towns of Hedley and Bleakersville — but to certain individuals with the right security clearance, this much is clear:
The night the border had come down, it had taken ships and planes and trucks with it, anything that happened to be on or approaching that imaginary but too-real line at the moment of its creation, and for many hours after, before anyone knew what was going on, knew enough to keep distant. Before the army moved in. The plaintive groan of metal and the vibration of engines that continued running as they disappeared…into something, somewhere. A smoldering, apocalyptic vision, the con towers of a destroyer, sent to investigate with the wrong intel, “sliding into nothing” as one observer put it.
Is it the work of aliens? Is it something man-made? Was it divined by occult worshippers meddling with supernatural forces beyond their control? Can it be stopped? Can its entrance be closed? The answers are more complex than their questions, and they defy summary, as David Tompkins noted in a piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books. Borrowing a term from Timothy Morton, Tompkins described Area X as a “hyperobject,” or “too complex, too massively distributed across space and time, for humans to get a grip on.”
The connection is inspired, as readers will come to discover, and it’s made all the more so when you assume the book’s setting — which is never explicitly stated — to be Florida. After all, clues are abundant: the swamps, the mossy coasts, “the way that the distant sky formed dark curtains of downpours,” the rumrunning lineage of the region’s earliest inhabitants, and the alluvial limestone foundation upon which towns have been built. The description of Chipper’s Star Lanes (Note: Possible spoilers), a dive bar frequented by one of the book’s characters, is the kind of place that could only exist in the Sunshine State.
Indeed, the connection works so well because Florida, more than any other state in the nation, has behaved throughout its history as an ecological hyperobject, confounding development and civil engineering experts who’ve mastered massive projects in other, tamer parts of the country. For the Army Corps of Engineers (those “supposed-to-be conquerors,” as Hurston called them), the state’s tremendous network of aquifers and waterways has been like a hellish game of Whack-a-Mole: they dam one region, they flood another; they irrigate one pasture, they poison a reservoir. On a tropical peninsula where the highest point is only 345 feet above sea-level, you get the sense that nothing man does here will matter in the long run because, sooner than later, the entire place will be consumed by the earth from whence it rose.
In this way, VanderMeer’s Area X makes the most sense. In this way, Florida is the most likely place for a world-ending hyperobject to unspool, and to voraciously devour the rest of us with it.
This is the way the world ends: both with a bang and a dachshund. Or at least that’s how it must’ve felt to Randy Bragg when his sleeping dog was suddenly shocked off of his lap by the sound of an explosion in the distant south, toward Miami. Fortunately for him and his housemates, Miami — which was just nuked by the Soviets — is hundreds of miles from Fort Repose, which rests in the state’s central dead space, mutually far from the U.S.S.R.’s next targets: Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville alike. Though he can’t know for sure in that moment, what Randy and his wiener dog have just endured was the first salvo in World War III: a coordinated, multi-national, nuclear assault on not only the biggest cities in America, but the biggest cities in Europe, as well.
This is the jumping off point in Alas, Babylon, Pat Frank’s Cold War classic about the fate of one Florida town spared from nuclear winter. From here, the novel concerns itself with how people cope with an obliterated society, and how modern society would fare if it were suddenly stripped of all of its technological accoutrements.
In this way, Randy Bragg’s Floridian locale was incredibly fortuitous. Down south, he and his housemates don’t need to worry about the onset of frigid winters, and the soil is cooperative enough to grow sustainable agriculture. The waterways are relatively pristine — or at least they were at the time of the book’s writing, in the 1950s — and they volunteer enough fish to feed entire families. While there are versions of Fort Repose all throughout the country, you get the sense that the Floridian survivors are faring much, much better than their counterparts in Fargo.
It seems almost paradoxical, then, that Frank chose to set his post-apocalyptic vision in a place that at the time was mostly known for its pristine, Eden-like qualities. Then again, stains are most evident on untarnished backdrops. Perhaps it was the post-war development of Florida, marked by a rapid influx of new residents — Frank goes out of his way to mention several Ohio transplants in his novel — that inspired him. This degradation is touched on briefly when Randy, just after the blast, ponders the changes he’s witnessed in a single generation:
In his father’s youth, this section of Florida had been a hunter’s paradise, with quail, dove, duck, and deer in plenty, and even black bear and rare panther. Now the quail were scattered and often scarce…Randy had not shot quail in twelve years. When visitors noticed his gunrack and asked about quail shooting, he always laughed and said, “Those guns are to shoot people who try to shoot my quail.”
Progressing forward several decades, Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro concerns itself with a Florida even farther removed from an apocalyptic, nuclear event. Here, along the southern Keys, bands of people have been living for years cut off not only from the rest of the nation, but even from mainland Florida. The state of the nation is unclear, but we know for certain that Miami is an irradiated ruin. Stories of contamination are legion, and only the elders recall life before the blast. The survivors’ culture is scarcely recognizable. America — or at least the America that still exists — is no longer a mostly Christian nation, but rather one that recognizes the gods Allah, Quetzalcoatl, and Bob Marley in addition to Jesus.
In certain respects, it’s possible to read the book as a sequel to Alas, Babylon, albeit one that’s philosophically opposite. Whereas Pat Frank’s characters retain their ’50s-era gung-ho, “we can do this” mentality, and they remain focused on weathering their storm and progressing with their projects, the environment in Fiskadoro is bleak, hopeless, and devastated. Characters abandon their tasks and lose focus. (One has a particularly awful encounter with drugged up pirates who mutilate their own genitals.) At no time do you get the sense that anything will improve for Denis Johnson’s characters, who exist on the edge of the world, subsisting on whatever flotsam and jetsam wash upon its shores.
To some degree, its possible that Alas, Babylon reads more optimistically because in the ’50s, it still felt like humanity could right its course, and like Florida could be saved. By the time Johnson got to Fiskadoro in 1985, however, that glimmer of hope had been lost, and it was apparent that the end of the world would truly be the end of the world, and that there would be no coming back in the way we’d once hoped possible.
Native Floridians feel about their home state the way moths do about flames. On some level, they’re aware of how bad it’ll be for them to return, how easy it’ll be to fall in with their old crowds, and how the kind of people drawn to the state’s tropical climate have a way of acting as lotus-eaters around one another, stretching time out to perverse, unproductive lengths. They know this, and yet they return anyway. Laura van den Berg, who grew up in Orlando, must understand this truth as well, because why else would she focus the second half of her novel Find Me on her protagonist’s escape from a Kansan hospital down south all the way to Key West? Yes, the character has her reasons, but buried beneath them, one suspects that it’s the author’s inborn desire to return home that’s driving the action more than anything else.
That’s not a detriment, either. Find Me, which features some of the most beautiful writing I’ve read in years, picks up in the wake of a public health pandemic, the likes of which haven’t been seen in America since the great flu outbreak of 1918. Across the country, people are becoming afflicted by a strange illness that erases their memories, and soon kills them. A band of survivors has been holed up in a hospital ward so that medical professionals — or so they call themselves — can examine them for congenital immunity. Joy Jones, an orphan who grew up in Boston, is the novel’s main character.
While residents of the hospital are shielded from the outside world by the hospital staff, who limit their exposure to the Internet and television, Joy nevertheless discovers a secret about her early life. After escaping from the hospital, she can think of nowhere else to head than to the nation’s southernmost point: Key West, home to the person she’s most trying to find.
In a recent episode of The Book Report, Michael Schaub asks Janet Potter about why readers are so interested in post-apocalyptic fiction, and Potter says, “Some people say that it’s a way to process our cynicism as a society, that we are actively killing the world around us, and ruining our own bodies with the amount of toxins we’re constantly taking in, so we’re kind of speculating, like, if we are destroying our world, what will happen to us? Will we be OK?”
Maybe in Florida — in spite of everything else — we might be.
Recommended reading: Jeff VanderMeer, author of the Southern Reach trilogy, writes for The Atlantic about the “surreal journey” of publishing three novels in one year. Pair with VanderMeer’s Millions interview with Richard House.
Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy: a genuinely weird work of ecological fiction, a hyper-object, or a strangely beautiful “glimpse of a whole that’s, by its nature, unknowable”? Joshua Rothman argues for all three in a review for The New Yorker. For more from Vandermeer himself, check out his Millions interview with Richard House, author of The Kills.
Murray Farish’s debut collection, Inappropriate Behavior, includes tales of fictionalized or alternative history that incline toward the surreal. He discusses the “principally and unaccountably strange” with Evelyn Somers, who has written about his work before, at Bloom. Fancy yourself more weirdness? Head to Weird Fiction Review curated by Jeff VanderMeer, whose Southern Reach trilogy was just released in one volume.
Out this week: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews; The Letters of TS Eliot: Volume 5; Rocket and Lightship by Adam Kirsch; The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan Daum; and a single-volume edition of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. For more on these and other new titles, check out our Great Second-half 2014 Book Preview.