Books Issue 2017: Florida Man vs. Florida literature: And the winner is?

Carl Hiaasen vs. Sarah Gerard.

click to enlarge Books Issue 2017: Florida Man vs. Florida literature: And the winner is?
Courtesy of Lee Irby

Florida fiction.

It’s clear by now, if there was any question, that novelists who live in Florida can’t outdo reality. “Florida Man” isn’t just a meme or a Twitter handle, but something closer to our Tolstoy, a touchstone of being that renders fiction obsolete in many ways. A writer might spend a year or two devising a clever plot only to watch as some besotted wastrel from Pasco County double or triple down on a felonious scheme that mixes cupidity with stupidity, with a heaping dose of greed and a final course of mayhem.

A writer might think: I can’t have a naked man on PCP chew off someone’s face in broad daylight. No one would ever believe that.

Because of the surfeit of the surreal in the Sunshine State, Florida novelists break into two distinct but not hostile camps. One group tries to compete with reality, a Herculean task that requires the endless cataloguing of misdeeds culled from various news sources from around the state. These scribes are the children of Carl, as in Carl Haissen, Florida native, muckraking journalist, and inventor of the Weird Florida crime genre.

The children of Carl are often veterans of print media — Tim Dorsey worked at the Tampa Tribune and contemplated a career of nights and weekends spent behind a desk, a vision of horror that impelled him to complete Florida Roadkill, his first novel, in which the inimitable Serge Storms makes his debut. Dorsey has gone on the write 20 more books in 20 years, a pace of production that staggers the mind.

Dorsey’s book-a-year output has made it difficult for another writer to use the Hiaasen formula, though Jeff Lindsay of Cape Coral managed to take the trope of the “good serial killer” and fashion the Dexter series, which later became a much-beloved show on Showtime, back when people subscribed to cable. Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the first in the series, was a revelation because of how skillfully Lindsay created a sympathetic killer who made us care about him. Lindsay, however, is a mere mortal and his Dexter series consists of just eight books.

If you’re keeping score at home, Dorsey basically stole from Hiaasen, and then Lindsay stole from Dorsey. Commercial fiction in Florida can take on incestuous overtones, but the goal is to provide the average reader with a cartoon version of Florida that has just enough verisimilitude to enthrall the newcomer or the tourist.

But there is another camp of fiction writers who use Florida in a far different way, and it might surprise people that this state can and has produced serious authors. These writers don’t yank from the headlines or try to compete with Florida Man; they use this troubled, beautiful land as a canvas. Often they have left the state to pursue literary glory elsewhere, usually Gotham, but Florida remains on their mind.

A perfect example is Alyssa Nutting, whose novel Tampa caused quite a stir because it was based on the case of Deborah Lefave, the hot schoolteacher who was banging her middle-school students. Nutting knew Lefave from high school and could have written a different kind of book, but instead opted for something sordidly poetic, a shimmering prose that captured the sexual complexity of a tortured soul. There is something close to Nabokov in her narration, and she can thread the needle when describing sexual encounters — she never uses the word “throbbing,” for example.

Karen Russell took the Everglades and imagined an alternate universe in Swamplandia!, a work that though flawed in many ways still seeks to capture much deeper truth about Florida’s history and the dynamics of tourism in a state dominated by a certain rodent. It’s a ghost story wrapped in a love story, but ultimately it describes rampant change and profound alterations, two major themes in Florida’s history.

On the horizon is St. Petersburg’s own Sarah Gerard, whose essay collection, Sunshine State, presages a promising career. She is at work on a novel set in Florida, and one can only hope that she lives up to her talent. Gerard comes back frequently to Florida to do research and visit family, but she lives and teaches in New York, giving her perspective and access to ideas that help her frame her experiences growing up in Pinellas County. She might very well become one of the great chroniclers of our state, with her deft eye for detail and her haunting, understated voice.

The commercial novelists and the literary-minded authors both share the same desire — to capture the confounding, contradictory nature of a place unlike any on the planet. The world of Serge A. Storms is not unlike the one described in Tampa: perverts, miscreants, con-men, liars, and killers. Florida can inspire those who write for money and those who write for joy. Florida has defined American popular culture for 50 years, and so its aberrance can pay handsomely, for hack and artist alike.