The Ten Best Florida Novels: Freaks, Pioneers, Retirees, Hurricanes
Representative Allen West. Governor Rick Scott. Real Housewives skin assemblage Elsa Patton. Florida has long had a rough go of things when it comes to being represented to the world.
courtesy of the Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, Boston. For sale: bullshit listicle, never read.
But we've always had a fairly rich literary tradition -- even if much of it has been tattooed across our felons' necks -- which makes it sting a bit to see To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway (that hack!) selected as "The Most Famous Book Set in Florida." Hemingway and Florida deserve better.
The distinction was made by The Business Insider, a financial news aggregator run by a guy banned from the securities industry after being charged with fraud. The site took a break from linking to "Awesome Pictures of the US Navy Through History" and "Highly Successful People with Bizarre Eating Habits" in order to provide a literary map of the US in which each state is represented its "Most Famous Book," seemingly the results of a five-minutes-before-class free association exercise. Pity poor Washington, which at least dodges Fifty Shades of Grey by having Twilight sparkle its way into the state's spot.
The trouble is that "most famous" is no way to represent anything, otherwise the UN Security Council's permanent seats would be occupied by France, China, Chris Brown, Scott Disick, and Miley Cyrus's tongue. Here are 10 books set in Florida that represent us way better than a second-tier self-derided Hemingway book written "for the money," (or so Hemingway told Howard Hawks, whose way-different film version is actually the famous thing that people remember).
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
If Business Insider had selected this one, you wouldn't be reading this list right now. Published only two years before To Have and Have Not, Zora Neale Hurston presents a far different view of Florida than the sexy tropical fabrication championed by Hemingway. In lieu of romanticized white criminals, Hurston shows unvarnished and poor blacks, eschewing politesse for a groundbreaking and lasting portrayal of race, injustice and gender inequality, all while making a case for compassion being an innate human attribute.
Florida's history can be tracked through its responses to its hurricanes and Their Eyes Were Watching God includes what are probably literature's greatest ever descriptions of a hurricane and its aftermath. Hemingway's novel falls apart in the second half and suffers from underdeveloped stock characterizations. Certainly not the case here. But Hurston was buried in an unmarked grave, whereas the progeny of Hemingway's six-toed cats now hold several high-level positions in the Key West government.
Rabbit at Rest by John Updike
In a lot of ways, Updike's series about Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom is the definitive fictional chronicle of the American middle class not quite waking up to the bill of goods it was sold over the course of the 20th century. It's fitting then that the series concludes with this Pulitzer-winner largely set in a Florida condo. Updike folds into Rabbit's anxieties the blunt-force traumas that battered America -- and Florida, especially -- at the turn of the century: AIDS, terrorism, financial disaster, addiction, racism and the unprecedented aging of the country's largest generation. And it's Updike, so the language is as ornate and gorgeous as Hemingway's is sparse and mannered.