Thursday, June 21, 2018
Books

Review: Jeff Klinkenberg's 'Alligators in B-Flat' captures feral, real Florida

In a village a couple of hours from where I live, in a desert state that is the diametrical opposite of Florida every way but politically, stands a beat-up old garage full of fan belts, tires, hubcaps and scrap metal. You can pass the time of day there drinking pop, if you like, or sneak a pull off a bottle of something stronger if you dare. You can ponder the mysteries of internal combustion. Chance probably brought you there, but, unless you have a broken-down or busted-up car in the service bay, what keeps you there can only be called the human impulse to loiter.

Jeff Klinkenberg, bard of Florida's back roads and byways, knows just such a place up in that swampy country twixt Gainesville and Palatka. "Loitering is an art at Chiappini's, a grocery store/gas station/tavern in Melrose," he writes, adding, happily, "Loitering happens to be my hobby."

Newspaper folks have an exquisite circumlocution for loitering: They call it "enterprise journalism," meaning, usually, that you find a place that serves something to drink where you can hang around and see what stories turn up. Loitering with intent, in other words. If there is an ascended master of the form, it is Klinkenberg, who has been reporting for this newspaper for more than 35 years on the hidden wonders of the Sunshine State and the odd people, critters, places and institutions that constitute it — reports gathered, most lately, in Alligators in B-Flat, whose title we'll get to in just a minute.

But first, we must consider Exhibit A: Chesty Morgan.

If you are of a certain age — and likely of a certain gender — you will remember Ms. Morgan and the improbable dimensions that gave her her sobriquet. You may have seen her in a Fellini film. Unless you are Jeff Klinkenberg, you have probably not visited her in the aisle of a Publix grocery store somewhere in the Tampa Bay metroplex. You have almost certainly not ascertained that she is a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor, and that now, far from the stage, she is "a tiny woman named Lillian (who) fixes roofs, bakes lemon cakes and makes matzo ball soup for friends."

And now you know, and now you have new and different reasons to take Chesty Morgan to heart. Just as, reading Alligators, you will get to know a slew of new friends — gator wrestlers and swamp hogs who, in demeanor and dress alike, resemble the redneck aristocrats of Duck Dynasty had they only the good fortune to live in Florida; a dude who wanders around for miles clad in little more than flip-flops, searching for the answers to questions he has yet to formulate; a bear that incautiously sticks its head into a jar for a last lick of mayonnaise or some such thing and now, in a nice nod to Cape Canaveral, wears it "like a space helmet," a Pooh for our time.

Pythons, pit bulls and Porta-Potties — all are nearby. This isn't a night at the Copa.

And then there's Chesty Morgan, whose story alone is worth the price of admission. And Bunny Yeager, mistress of cheesecake in a bygone day — but still going strong. And a fellow who, against the odds, makes fugitive art and assembles meaning out of life's void in "what might be the last great Florida town" — that being Apalachicola, which deserves the handle if only for the serpentine bridge that joins the town to the tangled purlieus of Tate's Hell State Forest.

There, if you look carefully, you might find signs of a Florida panther, of which Klinkenberg reckons there might be 120 left roaming in the wild. You will almost certainly see an iguana, which, he counsels, you might do worse than to put in a soup pot, iguanas being invasive, destructive and tasty. And there's likely to be a gator or 10 lurking around, ready to burst forth in a song of love and longing in the key of B-flat — the key, Klinkenberg reminds us, in which Chuck Berry wrote Johnny B. Goode, though for reasons probably unrelated to those that caused the gator's song to evolve in sympathetic resonance.

And now you know something that 10,000 Suzuki students likely don't. It gets better, though — but for that you'll want to read this entertaining and ever-so-idiosyncratic guide to the out of the way that lies just beyond our gaze, out in the swamp, out on the dirt road.

Every state has a place where fan belts shed their rubber dust onto condensation-topped cans of cold beverage. Every state has a mad-dog collector who knows where those places are. But not every state — indeed, precious few — has a collector who can travel, observe, absorb and write as capably as Jeff Klinkenberg.

Oh, and loiter, too.

Gregory McNamee writes about travel, culture, film and other topics for the Encyclopaedia Britannica and its blog.

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