Florida is a feast for writers interested in the weird, wacky and wild. Crime writers like Carl Hiaasen and Tim Dorsey make full use of the state's native nuttiness, but literary fiction writers have been known to harvest some of that crop as well.
Two cases in point: Larry Baker's novel A Good Man and N.M. Kelby's short story collection A Travel Guide for Reckless Hearts. Both build stories upon the Sunshine State's eternal promise of sweet new lives under sunny skies — as long as you don't mind hurricanes, snakes, con artists and some very strange neighbors.
Baker's first novel, The Flamingo Rising, was a Read Around Pinellas book in 2006 and was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie. He sets A Good Man in St. Augustine, which may be the oldest European-settled city in the United States, but it's still a small town that gives up its secrets slowly.
Baker's protagonist is an out-of-towner named Harry Ducharme, a formerly famous disc jockey on the skids whose boozy slide lands him in St. Augustine, standing knee-deep in the Atlantic and wondering how he got there.
Harry, who has his own secrets, gets a job at a quirky little talk radio station whose other denizens include a Rush Limbaugh lite with a parrot named Jimmy Buffett, a Cuban-American whose fake interviews with Castro have a big following, and a mysterious but beloved cooking show host named Nora James, who broadcasts from her home. Harry falls in love with Nora, even though it takes a year for him to persuade somebody, anybody to introduce him to her.
Harry feels as if he's found a home, eventually — until a late-season hurricane blows in a strange man who calls himself Prophet, although he has many names and, as Harry discovers during an eerie midnight interview, many faces.
Baker's story draws upon literary sources like Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and especially Flannery O'Connor and singer-songwriter Harry Chapin for an engaging story of love, redemption, family, friendship and a little Florida mysticism.
As its title suggests, many of the characters in the stories in Kelby's A Travel Guide for Reckless Hearts are lovers, present, former or would-be.
For many of them, Florida represents the escape, the fresh start, the state of transformation — like the abused woman who turns herself into a Weeki Wachee mermaid in Our Florida Vacation, or the two winners of a bogus leadership award who plunge into a perilous relationship in Jubilation, Florida.
Some of the stories quietly dazzle with complex relationships drawn with swift, calligraphic strokes, like the one in The Faithful. A grown daughter comes back to her childhood home on a snowy Christmas as her glamorous mother and newish stepfather prepare to sell the place and move to (where else?) Florida.
The narrator misses her dead father, and she's still uncomfortable with her mother's second husband — who is the father's brother. Ick, maybe, or maybe not — there's more to the story.
Other stories are chilling, such as Deals, the story of a young widow with two little girls. They're still reeling from the loss of a husband and father, too, and running out of money as well. So when a couple they meet at the public pool in a Florida town in the 1970s offer to help them out, at first they're grateful: "We couldn't afford a car. Eden and Bob couldn't have kids."
Kelby draws us along as the implications of that deal slither into the awareness of the older sister. It's a beautifully paced story, rich with creepy details, and although I thought I knew where it was going, it surprised me right to the end.
Kelby's writing is often humorous, and there are certainly touches of that in these stories, like the obsessed troop of Camp Fire Girls in Waiting for the Hungarians, determined to sell the most P-Nuttles in history. But even the funny stories here have a melancholy edge, like the one you get when you know it's the last margarita and the song on the radio reminds you of someone who's not there.