by Tom Cooper (Random House, 379 pages)
“Florida Man” became a meme in 2013 because of the bizarre headlines that seem in endless supply in that state, such as “Florida Man Wearing Crocs Gets Bitten After Jumping Into Crocodile Exhibit at Alligator Farm.” (True story, circa 2018.)
Florida Man is also the title of Tom Cooper’s second novel, and both the title and cover design suggest that the story within will be equally wacky. It is not, unless you thought Breaking Bad was a zany comedy.
It is, instead, a slow-burning, low-voltage thriller that spools profanely from the worst opening sentence since “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Cooper almost lost me on the first page, and three other times: the two pages of opening quotes (which include, bizarrely, the Miami Dolphins Fight Song, although the reason for its inclusion becomes nauseatingly clear later); the three-page table of contents that lists five categories and 114 chapters; and a two-page cast of characters, which is totally unnecessary unless you’re writing a play.
But then, in the amount of time it takes for a small plane to fall in flames from the sky, nearly clipping two 17-year-olds in medias res, he reeled me in and dragged me, kicking and screaming, to the last page.
He is not so much a writer as a magician, turning a scruffy, flea-bitten, divorced man whose most loyal friends are a pack of feral cats into someone you pull for, someone you can’t abandon at page 20 or 200, because you care what happens to him, which, because he is a Florida man, is a lot.
Reed Crowe, the same teenager we meet having sex with his girlfriend on the first page, is divorced and has lost a child less than 10 pages later. He has parlayed a bale of marijuana he took from that burning plane into a generally miserable existence as proprietor of a tourist trap that makes I-95’s South of the Border look elegant, and a one-star inn served and populated by people who look like extras in Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.
Crowe has a premonition that things are about to get even worse when a sinkhole swallows a lime tree in his backyard on what was already a “three-aspirin morning.” (Sinkholes, by the way, are but the first in a long line of reasons that “Florida Man” is a meme, rather than “Georgia man” or “Tennessee man” — Florida has so many horrible things going for it, besides the hurricanes, such as sinkholes, pythons and alligators. Just add beer, and Florida men neither live long nor prosper.)
The vanished tree begins a protracted chain of disturbing events, which include the sudden appearance of a real human skull in one of Crowe’s cheesier attractions at the Florida Man Mystery House, felonious behavior by Crowe’s longtime friend and employee Wayne Wade, and, most ominously, the emergence of a grotesquely deformed villain called “Catface,” who, as it turns out, was a survivor of the plane crash that the teenaged Crowe witnessed, and has spent every minute since then imagining how he would get his revenge.
Florida Man also has the same rich color and tautness, and the vivid sense of place of the AMC series, raising similar questions about why people stay in pocked places, both literal and figurative, for so long. It could hold its own as a series over at least two seasons, maybe more.
That said, I’m not sure I enjoyed this book as much as I suffered through it. But I can say the same about Breaking Bad, which is widely acknowledged as one of the best series of all time.
Breaking Bad, however, I never wanted to end. Florida Man seems to go on at least 50 pages longer than necessary, despite two perfectly good ending points that Cooper blows by.
However, that was another 50 pages in which I didn’t care if it was raining, or not raining enough, or if the dishes were piling up in the sink or if the president was tweeting. So we’re good. Call it Florida Man Makes Good Despite Bad Beginning. A-
When publishers consider the potential value of a manuscript, one thing they want to know is how many other books have been published on the subject. There’s a secret formula, some Goldilocksian number that indicates there’s interest in a topic, but not so much that it’s been overdone.
It’s mystifying, then, that there’s such a vast compendium of books about habits: bad habits, good habits, 7 habits, 5 habits, 3 habits, atomic habits, million-dollar habits, billion-dollar habits.
Apparently publishers think we are most inclined to try to change our habits around New Year’s Day, as there are at least two 2019 titles slated for paperback release the last week of December: Good Habits, Bad Habits, the Science of Making Positive Changes that Stick by Wendy Wood (Picador, 320 pages), and Tiny Habits, the Small Changes That Change Everything by B.J. Fogg (Mariner, 320 pages).
That seems wrong. The best time for change is the advent of fall, with its invigorating changes in temperature, and children’s (theoretical) return to school.
Right now, the leading book of habit-changing is James Clear’s Atomic Habits, the paperback version of which costs more than the hardcover on Amazon, weirdly enough. (Avery, 320 pages. Because apparently 320 pages is a popular choice for habit books.)
But the father of all habits, of course, was the late Stephen Covey whose 7 Habits of Highly Successful People was released in 1989 and launched a brand. A 30th-anniversary edition came out in paperback in May (Simon and Schuster, 464 pages), if you don’t already have one of the 40 million copies already sold.
Or you could just forget about this self-improvement stuff altogether and just indulge in Melania and Me, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff’s account of her friendship with the first lady, which if it wasn’t over already, is as of the book’s publication this week (Gallery, 352 pages).