Gritty city — Sterling Watson's Suitcase City

Eckerd prof Sterling Watson brings Tampa’s underbelly to pulsing life.

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Sterling Watson: Suitcase City
Readings: Sat., March 7, 3 p.m., Haslam’s, 2025 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; Thurs., March 12, 7 p.m., Inkwood Books, 216 S. Armenia Ave., Tampa.

Sterling Watson is satisfied.

We’re meeting at the St. Pete Yacht Club to talk about his new book, Suitcase City (Akashic Books), a gritty noir set in Tampa in the 1980s. Watson is clearly at home in the club, mulling the choice between crab cakes and prime rib as he sips a vodka martini. He’s a pink-cheeked, rounded 60-something, his blue button-down and dark jacket so freshly pressed this might be the first time he’s worn them. The shirt is unbuttoned to the middle of his chest, and wiry gray hairs plume out like a smoke signal for retiree sex.

He eventually goes with the prime rib. That and the club membership come mostly courtesy of 30 years teaching creative writing at Eckerd College; though he’s published seven books since 1978, Watson’s writing has never hit it truly big. And he talks like a teacher, holding forth on W.H. Auden and Faulkner.

All this steak and pontificating could make a struggling younger writer resent Sterling Watson. That is, if Suitcase City weren’t such a damn great book, a too-rare (and sometimes nearly too real) depiction of the wildly different worlds that exist side by side in the city by the bay. It tells the story of James Teach, a football washout who ascends from bayou criminality to country club respect, only to be pulled back into the past — and to the shady environs of northeast Tampa — by forces bigger than himself. Events uncoil with an unflashy confidence and understated poetry, drawing in diverse characters whose deep inner lives give the wire-tight plot a thumping, nervous heart.

Suitcase City’s muscular, propulsive complexity earned it a coveted slot with Brooklyn’s dynamic Akashic Books, where Watson’s fringy fellow authors include Richard Hell, Adam Mansbach (Go the Fuck To Sleep) and the rapper Prodigy of Mobb Deep. “I’m lucky,” he says. “I’m the old guy with this hip young publishing house.”

But it’s not just luck. If Sterling Watson has become confident in a country club, he still sees it with an outsider’s skepticism. Watson, like James Teach, got to the club by way of the swamps, and he rhapsodizes about his own simpler days spent jigging redbelly bream on the Suwanee. In Suitcase City, that bayou eye finds lawyers and bankers and other highborn creatures just as compromised as prostitutes and drug mules.

Even more than class, race is gravity in Suitcase City. The book turns on a violent encounter between a black teenager and a possibly rage-addled white man, though it was written well before the most recent tragedies that have sparked national outrage. But it’s not a sermon — all of its characters are complex and human, not least the unhinged black pimp who, in a bold move in this day and age, serves as the book’s maniacal and heartbroken villain.

“It’s really a book about two men who loved the same woman,” says Watson, “and who both contributed to her downfall.”

And not least of all, it’s a compulsive page-turner with large dollops of sex and intrigue, with a violent climax that had my heart in my throat.

As our meal nears its end, Watson considers the challenges of writing about places, like Florida, without much literary baggage.

“Writers have to work harder. But I think Tampa has the potential to be a literary city.”

With Suitcase City, Sterling Watson has shown us our city through unforgiving eyes, and made it hard to look away. For that, he deserves to be satisfied, and more. 

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