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.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.