Patrick Smith glares at the wall in front of him and sucks air through a tube. Old age has claimed him. One day he was a kid running through the swamp. Now he is 84 and lying in a living room bed gasping for breath. Waiting for the story to end, as all of them must do.
He knows about telling stories. For many Floridians, in fact, he is the best of all time. For a certain kind of reader, his most famous book, A Land Remembered, is the greatest story ever told, right up there with the Bible.
They have told Patrick Smith that, not once but many times, by letter and in person, sometimes while weeping. Once a woman called to tell him she had fulfilled her daddy's last request as he lay dying: She had read to him from A Land Remembered.
"I didn't know people would love it so much,'' Patrick Smith says from his own bed. "I'm glad they did. It makes me feel good, that I did something that made a difference.''
A Land Remembered is an action-packed historical novel that takes place between 1858 and 1968. It follows three generations of a plucky family struggling to survive the hostile Florida landscape. The 400-page saga covers the Civil War, emancipation, Seminole uprisings, cattle drives, snakes, gators, mosquitoes, bears, wolves, hurricanes, orange-killing freezes, the arrival of the robber barons and the destruction of natural Florida. It's a heartstring-tugging page-turner filled with brave and saintly folks and a wonderful sense of place.
The novel has sold more than 200,000 copies for Sarasota's tiny Pineapple Press since 1984. It is read in Florida elementary, middle and high schools. Florida history professors sometimes assign it. Ranching families love that a rancher is the hero. Environmentalists love the "paradise lost" theme.
Patrick Smith may be no Peter Matthiessen or Zora Neale Hurston or one of those hoity-toity writers who make literary hearts go pitty-pat. He tells simple stories using simple, declarative sentences ordinary people can understand. Last September, Florida Monthly magazine announced that readers had voted A Land Remembered as their favorite book for the 10th straight year, edging out Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Carl Hiaasen.
In March, Smith won the Florida Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing. Joe Wisdom, an English professor at Gulf Coast University, said A Land Remembered "should be handed out with orange juice at welcome stations to anyone who crosses the state line.''
There was a ceremony and a luncheon at the Governor's Mansion. The author spent the day in his living room sickbed watched by his wife, Iris, and their cats, Beauty, Cindy, Teddy Bear, Samantha, Boots, Tobias, Callie and Misty.
Misty, the elderly cat, is 19. Like Smith, she is hanging on to life. She used to enjoy sleeping in his lap. "But not now,'' he says. "I don't think she likes my breathing tube. It scares her.''
• • •
It scares him too, but it keeps his emphysema at bay. Once he smoked cigarettes and drank whiskey and tramped through the woods with a shotgun as if he had all the time in the world. He ate quail and fried catfish and felt the sun on his neck. Time passed; his body rebelled. But he remembers everything.
Patrick Smith was born in rural Mississippi in 1927. He liked to fish and hunt and read books. At the University of Mississippi he once saw William Faulkner ambling across the campus, but he wrote his master's thesis on Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who had written a Florida masterpiece called The Yearling.
He had fallen in love with Florida during a boyhood vacation, while seeing alligators and turtles and Seminole Indians, white beaches and sawgrass swamps, ranches and orange groves. He married Iris, a Florida girl, in 1947. They had two babies. To support everyone, he raised cattle and sold Studebakers, all the while dreaming of being a writer.
He published his first book, The River Is Home, when he was 23. His New York editor was also J.D. Salinger's editor; he never met the author of The Catcher in the Rye but remembers reading the famous novel in shock. "If I used those bad words,'' he told friends, "my mama would kill me.''
His own novel didn't sell enough copies for him to quit his newest day job, public relations at Ole Miss. In 1962, when James Meredith became the first African-American to enroll in the all-white university, there was rioting and enraged Klansmen and the pungent smell of tear gas. Smith's responsibilities included escorting the new student safely to his classes. The experience inspired his next novel, The Beginning, based on the new realities of Southern living. The subject displeased many white-skinned Mississippians.
In 1966, the Smiths moved to Florida.
• • •
"Iris,'' Patrick Smith croaks in a drawl that is part magnolia and part cross-cut saw, "where's our picture book?''
They look at the old photos. There is one of Iris and a strapping, bare-chested Patrick on the beach. Iris and Patrick and their two kids, Jane and Rick. Iris and Patrick in front of their Florida home.
They live in the same comfortable, ranch-style house today, not far from Cape Canaveral, on a canal that flows into the Banana River. If he could walk, maybe he'd go out and look at the water or the yard. Once upon a time, his thumb was green.
His daytime Florida job was managing public relations at Brevard County Community College. After supper, at the living room table, on a manual typewriter, he pounded out his novels as Iris and the kids watched television with the volume turned low.
"Tell the man about Rick,'' Iris says from the couch.
"What about Rick?'' Patrick asks.
"When he finally moved out of the house to go to college, you set a speed record turning his bedroom into your office.''
The office waits for him now. In it are a dusty desk and a typewriter, deer antlers and testimonials he has received over the years for A Land Remembered.
The novel was four years in the making. He devoted the first two to reading history books and interviewing mostly elderly ranchers, who were suspicious at first but eventually relaxed enough to talk. He didn't take notes or poke a microphone into their faces; they were shy people. Afterward they'd sit together on the front porch and drink black coffee, a thick, bitter syrup. The strong coffee disagreed with him, but he drank it to be sociable; sometimes on the way home he pulled off the road to squat in the palmetto thickets.
Eventually he started writing, a thousand words a day or sometimes a chapter after supper. Then he'd do the same the next night, rewriting as he went along, until he had a 700-page manuscript. The big New York publishers rejected it, said his cowboy book was too long. But Pineapple Press in Sarasota said yes. The editor, June Cussen, suggested he spice up the language. "Honestly,'' she said, "a man who is bitten by an alligator will probably use a stronger word than 'gosh.' '' He spiced up the language.
• • •
The New York Times praised the book, especially the man-against-nature theme, while criticizing, in a nice way, the simplicity of the characters. Of course, those characters — saintly rancher Tobias MacIvey and Seminole Indians who speak like New Age prophets — are exactly what many readers love best about the novel.
"It is THE BEST book I have ever read.''
"I couldn't get my child to read until I gave him A Land Remembered, and then I couldn't get him to put it down.''
"I have read your book 16 times.''
"Mister Smith, I see you wrote this book about my family.''
That letter and many more like it are in his files. "All these ranchers,'' he says, "think my book is about their families. If they want to believe it, that's fine with me.''
In 1999 the state inducted him into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame.
Since 2006, travelers who cross the Banana River have taken the Patrick D. Smith Causeway.
• • •
In bed, he shifts his weight and grimaces until Iris trots over and adjusts his pillow. A few years ago, he passed out while giving a speech. The doctor later told Patrick's son Rick "that we almost lost him.'' Turned out his lungs were shot; he also had prostate cancer. One night he fell in the bathroom and broke his arm and hip. He has not walked unaided since.
For a while, he was under the care of hospice.
"But hospice kicked him out,'' his daughter Jane likes to tell people. "He's a tough old cob. He got better. You can never count Daddy out.''
In the living room he stares at his hands and then at the wall painting that shows Old Florida, Patrick Smith's Florida, where bears and panthers still roam, where grizzled ranchers sit on the porch before sunlight and drink that thick black coffee.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727.