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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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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I spent more of 2010 than I care to admit working through a spell of writer’s block, brought on not because I didn’t have a project, or even because I doubted that I could finish that project, but because I was briefly and thoroughly convinced that none of it mattered, that of all of the things a person could do with their time, writing a novel was the least likely to improve anyone’s quality of life. The disasters seemed so much bigger than words, and even those crises that were crises of culture rather than climate seemed impermeable. I would watch cable news and think that language had lost all meaning, that my faith in books as a vehicle for empathy and understanding had been naïve and misguided, because empathy was dead.
The two books that most stood out to me this year spoke broke through that haze by reminding me what language can still do. They spoke to the anxieties of the present without being nihilistic or unrealistic about the future. They reminded me, during a year when I spent so much time battling my own distraction that I actually went back to writing longhand, how it felt to be so completely absorbed with a book that I didn’t notice my laptop or my cell phone, or, on one occasion, my metro stop, but also left me ultimately feeling more responsible for the world I live in, instead of more isolated from it.
The first was Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, a beautifully written and researched account of the great migration. The book expanded my understanding of a story I thought I knew and did a wonderful job of balancing the epic scope of the project with the intimate details of the lives of individuals. It’s hard to tell the story of pre civil-rights movement America without some degree of optimism, because it’s hard to read accounts of the way things were—from the brutal violence of both the U.S south that African-Americans fled and the U.S north that burned down neighborhoods rather than accept them as neighbors, to the quieter brutality of travelers being forced into lonely, unsafe drives because there was no where in the country for a black travel to safely rest—and not think about how much we take for granted now. But Wilkerson resists the reductive optimism of leaving it at that by exploring the ambiguous nature of some of the progress made, and by refusing to force her subjects into being symbols rather than human beings. I think a lot about the ways in which the recent black experience in America has been in some ways similar to an immigration experience, and in making the case that for many families, it was an actual immigration experience, Wilkerson linked the past and the present and reminded me that the past was not so long ago and the future is never set in stone.
The second book was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Egan did a beautiful job of filtering large anxieties—about time, about technology, about pop-culture, about the limitations of human connection—and making them breathe on the page, through a cast of characters who felt fully alive. After spending so much time this year listening to people weigh in on technology—technology and the future, technology and the book, technology and empathy—it was exciting to see Egan play with that anxiety in the novel form, by letting the question of technology become a question of aesthetics. The aesthetic choices engaged the question without providing a neat or heavy-handed answer. By the time the book shifted to the imagined future, I was grieving less for the loss of the world as I knew it, and more for the private tragedies of Egan’s characters, which were somehow not lost in either the playfulness of the novel’s form or the shift in forms of communication in their new present.
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