The allure and odor of books got me into this business. Small-town libraries are tough to pass by. By virtue of being readers we are also writers, I now believe, but that was not always the case. As a child I harbored the hope that, if I could write a book I might become part of the magic I found in books. Well, as some of you know, life behind the curtain exacts long hours and rarely softens reality.
As a result, I seek that magic in the work of others. The Sunshine State has produced some heavyweights: John D. MacDonald, Ernest Hemingway, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Carl Hiaasen, Thomas McGuane, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, Jimmy Buffet, Patrick Smith… and let’s stop there.
Here are books by writers (some lesser known; one not) I still return to when I need a lift, or instruction on the craft:
Richard Powell, I Take This Land—A 1963 novel about South Florida, written with the broad yet intricate brush of Gone With The Wind, but it was published during a newspaper strike so went unnoticed. Powell ranks with Patrick Smith in the hierarchy of Florida historical novelists and that is lofty territory, indeed. Powell also wrote a hilarious book set in a fictionalized Pine Island, Florida: Pioneer Go Home, which became the Elvis Presley movie “Follow That Dream.” (Probably Elvis’ best). Powell’s satire Don Quixote, USA also became a film, but a shamefully bad one—Bananas, by Woody Allen, whose efforts did an injustice to Powell’s humor and depth.
Philip Wylie’s Crunch and Des—These stories are fun, insightful portraits of Gulf Stream charter fishing in the ’40s and ’50s. Published first in the Saturday Evening Post, Wylie’s work spread the gospel of Florida’s saltwater charms throughout the world. The stories are told through the eyes of two fishing guides, Crunch and Des, with a spare grace and humor that stand strong.
Loren G. Brown, Totch, A Life in the Everglades—Not a novel (no one would believe this book if written as fiction) but the truest of true Florida voices written by a man who was a highly decorated veteran of World War II, a crabber, a netter, a commercial fisherman, a songwriter and a pot (but not cocaine) hauling smuggler who went to federal penitentiary rather than testify against his neighbors.
Archie Carr, The Windward Road: Adventures of a Naturalist On Remote Caribbean Shores—The title tells you a lot, but not enough. Dr. Carr’s work on studying and preserving sea turtles would stand on its own, but this book elevates him to icon status among those who love mixing adventure travel with our science. He writes lyrically but without affectation, and always with the observant eye of a field biologist who values both social and natural history.
Peter Matthiessen, Killing Mister Watson—If Florida has attracted the attention of a writer more gifted than Matthiessen, I am unaware. Killing Mister Watson is the first in his masterpiece trilogy Shadow Country that carts us back in time, into the Everglades, and tracks the deeds and black heart of a man who actually lived there and thrived, as viewed through the eyes of neighbors who, on a summer morning in 1910, used 33 bullets to end the life of Mr. Edgar J. Watson.