A graduate of the eminent Iowa Writers' Workshop, Paul Lisicky may teach creative writing for a living, but he admits to a childhood fascination with maps, streets, and towns. The sense of wonder was so encompassing that he confesses to still owning a box of maps, the detritus of a diffident childhood spent yearning to become a town planner or even a developer. He became, instead, a writer, and oddly enough his first novel, Lawnboy, is set in a place that has an intimate association with development run amok: South Florida.
Lisicky's book, a six-year project, is an evocative, sensitively rendered portrait of a young gay man coming of age in our parts. The author grew up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, lives most of the year in Houston, Texas, where he teaches, and spends the summers in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Except for a few months in Key West and a couple of years in a west-coast town north of Tampa, he has never really lived in Florida but still has an affinity with the state. "Even though I grew up in New Jersey, I didn't feel that landscape mirrored my own interior landscape, my own inner life," he explains. "I longed to be in a place with richer colors and sharper edges and flamboyant outrageous plants. There's always been something about the the tension between artifice and nature in South Florida that's been really compelling to me. It always seemed to me that South Florida was the real Florida."
Florida crackers might very well disagree, yet frequent visits to this region (his parents relocated to Pompano Beach and his brother resides in South Beach) supplied Lisicky with enough fodder to confidently make his protagonist, Evan Sarshik, that rare thing: a native. "In some ways I hope the book is an homage to South Florida," Lisicky notes. In a multitude of ways it is. The Sarshiks live in Coral Gables. Dadeland, Hialeah, and South Miami are a few of the many areas that get mentions, as does a plethora of strictly South Florida things such as the Everglades and Channel 7 News. In a few instances Lisicky's lack of familiarity shows, such as when Old Cutler Road somehow magically runs through the suburb of Kendall, and when in the course of a day Evan walks around the entire county, a journey that would probably take someone on foot several days.
Minor jaunts off course notwithstanding, Lisicky and his character get back on track, and he acquits himself well in the end. How smoothly he manages that task will be apparent when he reads from Lawnboy on a panel also featuring writer Jim Grimsley (Comfort & Joy) and local notable David Leddick during next weekend's street fair portion of the Miami Book Fair International. The fest kicks off this Sunday with a presentation by Schindler's List author Thomas Keneally, who will discuss his new work, The Great Shame and Triumph of the Irish in the English-Speaking World. Other writers slated to appear at the eight-day event include Scott Turow, Sally Bedell Smith, Susan Faludi, Scott Donaldson, Chris Matthews, David Maraniss, and Susan Orlean.
The possible sensory overload caused by hundreds of literary types reading, dissecting, and autographing their tomes may lead many readers to reiterate the words of Lisicky's protagonist, Evan, who at one point claims "some things are better left an idea." It's a sentiment that Evan also applies to this state when he says: "At times like this I saw the whole Florida experiment as one vast error; the notion of an entire existence modeled after the one in the North seemed doomed to failure."
According to Lisicky that concept may also be likened to gay life in Houston, which is not quite at South Beach speed yet. "We're not talking about big-city nightlife. It's not Warsaw [the nightclub]. A friend of mine who is from New York described Houston gay life as being very Flashdance," Lisicky says, chuckling. "It's pretty extensive, and there's a wide mix of people with very little attitude, but it's not as big-city as one would think."