I’ve been on leave from teaching this year, so it’s been a uniquely good 12 months of reading for me, a year when I’ve read for only one reason: fun. Now when I say fun… I’m a book nerd. So I tend to take on “reading projects.” The first was to work toward becoming a Joseph Conrad completist. I’m almost there. I warmed up with critic Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch: Conrad in a Global World, which granted me permission to remember the capacious scope of his perspective, his humanistic genius. His masterwork was hard work, but Nostromo belongs on the shelf of both the most important and most difficult of the 20th century. The Secret Agent blew the top of my head off—it’s funny and deeply relevant to our moment, about a terrorist bombing gone horribly wrong. Under Western Eyes is all I got left. 2018 isn’t over yet.
But then much fun came in reading whatever, whenever. That started with a heavy dose of Denis Johnson. The new posthumous collection of his short stories, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is uneven, but the title story is one of the most sublime pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. I do not understand how its series of narratives work together and I don’t want to. I finally read Fiskadoro, which deserves more credit than it gets for starting the cli-fi wave—it’s set in a Florida, a number of years after global ecological catastrophe hits, and everyone thinks Bob Marley is god. All of which led me to Lauren Groff’s Florida. “Snake Stories,” the finest story therein, is as good as fiction gets. Which pushed me toward Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, which from the first paragraph of talky lyrical cadenced prose and sharply depicted parental verisimilitude (I coined that and you can’t have it!) had me hooked. That led me on to Deborah Eisenberg’s Your Duck Is My Duck, which is her most accessible and relevant book to date. Wow is she smart/funny. Which led me to finishing up both Joy Williams’s The Visiting Privilege, and Ninety-Nine Stories of God, which are as different as books by one author come and both revelatory. Which led me on to read three stories from Mavis Gallant’s Collected Stories. In the intro of that book, Gallant implores her reader to read her as she’s meant to be read—one story at a time, put it down for as long as a year or more, pick it back up. So that’s what I do. “The Moslem Wife” is my new favorite.
That’s not what I did for Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, a book of satirical stories in the Saunders/Vonnegut mode that’s as gleefully violent as it is gleefully intelligent. While I was reading that one I decided I should really read Ottessa Moshfegh’s novella McGlue—also violent, intelligent, and gleefully so. I’ve always wanted to read more of a writer I suspect Moshfegh is disdainful of, Evan S. Connell, and having already been through Mrs Bridge I read Mr Bridge, which is elliptical and wry and smart. Which led me on to James Salter’s The Art of Fiction, which is just a talk he gave at UVA before he died, but which is full of useful advice from one of the best prose stylists of the 20th century. That led me to Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others—Spiotta is one of the most interesting stylists of the 21st, and all her powers are on display here. And that led me on to a new sampling of the work of one of my heroes, Grace Paley, The Grace Paley Reader, which FSG put out last year. I’ve read all her stories, but seeing them paired with her poetry opened my mind to her even more.
So that led me on to poetry! I like to read all of one poet every summer. This past summer it was Louise Glück. Hers might be the toughest-nosed, lithest and sharpest project of our lifetimes. And her books of prose about poetry, American Originality and Proofs and Theories, demand to be read and reread. I also fell in love with the wry perspicacity of Dianne Seuss, whose Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl slew me. Jason Morris’s Levon Helm is full of brilliant right-hand turns, turns of phrase and hard-won truths, and is the winner of the best title in the history of books. Chris Tonelli’s second book, Whatever Stasis (second-best title), made me laugh, then think, which is the right order. My colleague Airea Dee Matthews won the Yale Younger Prize a couple years back, and that book, Simulacra, is as razor-smart as they come, chock full of Plath and Stein and genius. I reread it twice. I also slammed through Galway Kinnell’s Collected Poems, and I never knew how weird and smart his long poem “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the World” was. Which prepped me for the extravagant original voice Daniel Borzutsky brings to The Performance of Becoming Human. I’ll read everything of his now. Same for Monica Ferrell. Her new book You Darling Thing is full of poems that are lyrical, spare, dry as bone.
OK so wow this is getting long, but being on leave apparently I had a lot of time to read. Cheston Knapp’s debut essay collection Up Up, Down Down is as intelligent as any book I’ve read this year, and he is a true inheritor to DFW’s explosive genius. I would gladly read Marilynne Robinson on the history of drywall, and What Are We Doing Here? is about a lot more interesting stuff than that, including the most erudite readings of the ills of American culture published this year. The title essay should be required reading for anyone who teaches at, attends or has attended a college or university in America. Mary Gaitskill is also a longtime favorite, and her Somebody with a Little Hammer is like a Christmas gift for every day of the year—“Lost Cat,” the long personal essay at its center, will now be on my syllabus every year. I clenched my teeth and everything else through Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Bob Woodward’s Fear. The latter was just godawful. Maybe next year we could do the Year in Attempting to Unread? Oh, and I just finished Jill Lepore’s new long history of the U.S. through the lens of Il Douche’s presidency, These Truths, where I learned more about polling and the failings of our Constitutional democracy than I thought possible.
OK OK this is getting long but I feel like we all sometimes forget that we read journals like the air we breathe. This was a particularly good year for The Paris Review—editor Emily Nemens’s first issue had exciting new work by Claire Vaye Watkins and Louise Glück. Tin House is on fire, and the Candy issue was a winner, with an essay by Rebecca Makkai about Hungary that’s right in my wheelhouse, and a deeply weird dark story by Julia Elliott. The May/June issue of The Kenyon Review alone had poems by Bruce Smith, Terrance Hayes and Jorie Graham. Bradford Morrow’s Conjunctions is always great, and its “Being Bodies” included an essay by Rick Moody on Lazarus that I’ve been thinking about since. The last issue of Salmagundi had essays on cultural appropriation by Allan Gurganus and Thomas Chatterton Williams that clarified things for me. And let’s all shed a tear for Glimmer Train, a tiny mag that launched a thousand story collections. I just read an issue with stories by Jamel Brinkley and future star Alexandra Chang, and it will be sorely missed.
OK OK OK I’m almost there I promise! This fall I went on a jag of reading two contemporary European writers I think will be up for Nobels in the next decade. The first is Hungarian novelist Lazlo Krasznahorkai. He’s already been short-listed for the International Booker Prize twice, and won once, and with each of his books New Directions puts out his legend grows. His masterwork Satantango feels like the starting point—or did, until The World Goes On came out this year. It’s a beautiful object, and as naturally both a story collection and a novel as anything I know. This also sent me back to reread Samuel Beckett’s Murphy and Molloy, as I think Krasznahorkai might, along with Coetzee and maybe Bernhard, be the only writer I’ve read who is a true inheritor of the Beckett strain. I had a similar excitement for German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, whose Go, Went, Gone is maybe the best fiction yet written about the refugee crisis. I had to go back and re-read the last two pages multiple times to fully appreciate their genius.
OK OK OK OK! I’ll stop but only after saying that my favorite mode of reading is reading side-to-side religious texts and contemporary books on physics, and then thinking a lot about cosmology. It keeps me sane. My three favorite reads of 2018 were Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time, Adam Becker’s What Is Real, and the audio version of Richard Feynman’s The Feynman Lectures. The audiobook is Feynman lecturing at Stanford in the 1960s, and it’s like listening to a character from The Godfather telling a rapt audience about how quantum physics works. Among other things it’ll make you nostalgic for heavy regional accents.
Alongside that reading, I read the Quran, and Idries Shah’s The Sufis, along with David Biale’s epic history of Hasidism, called… wait for it… Hasidism. Biale finished the book alongside a dozen other scholars, and it is and will be the standard on its subject for decades to come. And lastly, I’ve been reading the teachings of Reb Nachman, father of Breslov Hasidism, with a rabbi friend. This reading cuts against the grain of everything above. It is not to grow informed or to seek new aesthetics. It’s a minimalist endeavor. Every page of his Likutey Moharan is a revelation and an enigma, and it calls to be read very, very slowly. Like, three or four pages a week. It slows me, calms my mind and realigns me. We should all find time for reading projects like that.
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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.