The Ten Best Florida Novels: Freaks, Pioneers, Retirees, Hurricanes

For sale: bullshit listicle, never read.
For sale: bullshit listicle, never read.
courtesy of the Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, Boston.

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.

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.


Continental Drift by Russell Banks

Banks is a master of moral ambiguity on a global scale and in this, his finest novel, he captures what about South Florida has seized the imaginations of dreamers from around the world. His Florida is a desperate and grimy place, a hopeful and fantastical place that shifts to become something new for all whom it enchants. Florida is a muse that has served Banks well over his career; in 2011, he took one of our only-in-Florida stories and in Lost Memory of Skin found an improbably universal epic among the sex offenders banished to live under the Julia Tuttle Causeway. But in Continental Drift, he pairs the journeys of an American drifter and a Haitian aspirant, setting them in a bizarre Floridian intersection that somehow encapsulates the mythologies and realities of post-war America. It's a stunning work.

Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen

This is a refigured collection of Matthiessen's trilogy of novels about E.J. Watson, an Everglades sugar farmer and outlaw. It refigures the tropes of the Western by setting it in the Southeast, exploring manifest destiny in Florida's swamps. It's a book that for all of its violence and ugliness is never weighted down, achieving some kind of antigravity that lifts it out of history and allows our country to be examined from all angles. Spanning the Civil War to the Great Depression, Shadow Country attempts to explain how racism came to explain so much of our shared history but failure and collapse could not. This version of the trilogy won the National Book Award.


Naked in Garden Hills by Harry Crews

This isn't his weirdest Florida book -- that's Karate is a Thing of the Spirit -- but in Naked in Garden Hills, Harry Crews nails the humid grotesquery of the state; Garden Hills is literally a pit where strange gathers, a town at the bottom of a quarry peopled by go-go dancers, a man made obese by weight-loss shakes, and a delusional jockey. Crews was always interested in spectacle and so his love of Florida was no mystery. But instead of just delighting in the surreal, in Naked in Garden Hills, Crews uses Florida's primary natural resource (bizarre-as-fuck-ness) to illustrate how industrialism stole the privileges of community away from small towns, displacing it with consumerism.

The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

The Yearling was published about a year before To Have and Have Not and shared an editor in Maxwell Perkins. It is also overshadowed in popular memory by its film adaptation, although in this case, that's to the detriment of its source material. For some, this is a story for children about a child and his relationship with an orphaned fawn. But there aren't many books that explain Florida's complicated nature with the environment that both made the state possible and was destroyed to make way for progress. Rawlings wrote many great books about rural Florida but this is her best and most lasting, and it won the Pulitzer.


Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

South Florida is only one part of Florida. And venturing north of Palm Beach county can often feel like entering a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel. Not just any post-apocalyptic science fiction novel -- specifically Alas, Babylon. Yes, mediocre Hemingway is probably a bit better than Pat Frank at his best, as he is here, but To Have and Have Not blunders through a fantasy version of Key West whereas Alas, Babylon nukes central Florida in order to uncover the true peculiarities hidden beneath the postcard gloss of our state.

The Barefoot Mailman by Theodore Pratt

No one is seriously going to weigh Theodore Pratt on the same scale as Ernest Hemingway. But Pratt's long-out-of-print story of the mail route connecting Palm Beach and Miami gives life to a forgotten bit of wild Florida history and the settlement of the state that made Hemingway's Key West at all possible. Plus, you get a glimpse of Lemon City back when Sweat Records were still just something chubby guys broke in the summer and Arcade Fire wasn't jetting down to play shows. Look, Hemingway is awesome, but he only set one book in Florida and it's kind of a mess. Read his other books first and read other Florida books before it, too. Here's one that works.


Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski

Alongside The Yearling, this is the other classic Florida novel for young adults. Don't be confused by the title or cover; this Newbury winner is about violent drunks and children trying to not be pulled into the feuds and mistakes of their parents' generation. It's also probably one of the best books for kids in which a alcoholic character blows the head off a chicken with a shotgun for fun. Far from depicting a neon-lit beach paradise, here's an enduring classic that is as scary and complicated as Florida itself.

Ninety-Two in the Shade by Thomas McGuane

Thomas McGuane became known as Captain Berserko not long after publishing this novel, which was nominated for a National Book Award and is surely the great Key West novel. Set among desperate and eccentric docklands of mile zero, it's a postmodern dazzler that inverts all the Hemingway cliches indulged in To Have and Have Not, offering up darkly comic takes on macho bravado and the arrogance of world-gobbling white privilege. This isn't a parodic or reactionary novel, however, but a daring reinvention of American storytelling.

How'd we do? Any we missed? Let us know in the comments.

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