‘Florida Man’ a sprawling comic thriller set in the Sunshine State

Courtesy of Random House

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Book review

Over the past decade, the term “Florida Man” has become an internet meme, usually referring to headlines from tabloid headlines or police blotter stories. The joke tends to single out Florida as having a disproportionate share of stumblebum criminals or just folks with bad judgment.

Tom Cooper’s novel of the same name provides such examples as “Florida Man beats chess opponent with brass knuckles after losing game,” and “Florida Man, coke-addled, calls 911 to ask for number for 911.”

At first, Cooper’s book promises the kind of lighthearted mishaps that produce “Florida Man” headlines. But as the story spans decades in South Florida, the author implies there might be more to the Florida Man than meets the eye. Some of the titular characters of “Florida Man” prove to be native sons with deep roots in the state and an appreciation of the land and its history.

“Florida Man’s” scope leads to some surprising and not always graceful tonal shifts. At times, Cooper seems to be playing in Carl Hiassen’s sandbox, offering mystery, slapstick and chicanery in the Sunshine State. But “Florida Man” goes in different directions, as if stock characters from a scruffy comedy find themselves cast in a generational drama halfway through.

On the South Florida coast in 1980, Reed Crowe serves as the shaggy proprietor of a seedy motel as well as the Florida Man Mystery House, a tourist trap noted for unimpressive historic artifacts and cheesy boat tours. Frequently described as “scratching his beach bum beard,” Reed has good intentions but few ambitions beyond having a good time and dealing with crises that can involve sinkholes, snakes and long-lost human skulls. He’s also haunted by past tragedies, one of which comes around to bite him decades later.

Reed alternates between an open feud and a wary friendship with Henry Yahchilane, a taciturn Seminole native with the habits of a hermit. Reed and Henry prove to be pillars of the community compared to Reed’s old buddy Wayne Wade, an incompetent employee, substance abuser and petty criminal.

Some of the book’s funniest moments involve Reed and Wayne’s slovenly, corner-cutting behavior. “Wayne was known to clean his house with a leaf blower. He’d open the two side doors and let the machine rip, blasting the trash out the doors into the yard. Gum wrappers, rolling papers, cigarette packs, fast-food bags. A bizarre sight, if you were witnessing from afar. As though as storm were raging from inside the house, blowing debris outward.”

The image of a home containing a whirlwind of garbage is more telling than it seems at first. Characters who seem like quirky ne’er-do-wells have deeper, darker flaws that aren’t easily laughed off.

Cooper structures the book in sections, each describing a type of hurricane, beginning with “Category One.” “Category Two,” subtitled “Year of the Refugee,” brings in two types of Cuban immigrants who offer contrasting examples of both sides of the contemporary immigration debate. Reed gives shelter to a small family of starving boat people, becoming involved with their lives and seeking to shield them from both heartless U.S. policies and black-market groups that would exploit them.

Meanwhile, among the Mariel boatlift mass immigration of Cubans in 1980 was Hector “Catface” Morales, a professional assassin with a lifelong grudge against one of the book’s main characters. Horribly scarred and quick to violence, Catface is a bizarre figure reminiscent of the murderous Javier Bardem character in “No Country for Old Men.” Catface seems to roam Florida killing and freebasing indiscriminately, despite being the most suspicious-looking personality imaginable.

Author Tom Cooper Courtesy of Kathy Conner

Credit: Kathy Conner

Credit: Kathy Conner

Around its midpoint, the book becomes a straight-up action yarn with cinematic, Catface-and-mouse set pieces. The bloody suspense and goofy slapstick both recede, and “Florida Man” turns unexpectedly bittersweet and meditative.

Reed and Henry both have ancestors who, respectively, helped conquer the state and suffered displacement from it. In the latter sections, Cooper takes the characters from the 1980s to the present day, capturing how development erased much of the state’s oddball authenticity. Cooper shows nostalgia for “Old Florida” without being sentimental about, say, roadside zoos packed with miserable animals.

Major events include the destruction of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and a fictional but similarly menacing storm in 2019. The book’s storm sequences provide not just compelling writing but underline how modern climate change could reshape the Florida coast even more than the 20th century did. Cooper’s first novel, “The Marauders,” showed comparable environmental concerns, following misfit treasure hunters through Louisiana bayou’s fragile ecosystem in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

For the most part, Cooper’s meandering narrative pays off, and readers may find themselves more emotionally invested in Reed’s and Henry’s lives than you’d think based on the book’s early hijinks. The author includes a two-page list of “players” in the book, which helps, given that many of the supporting roles blur together. Reed’s ex-wife, for whom he continues to carry a torch, is most notable by her absence as she pursues a globetrotting art career.

Cooper’s prose feels both fresh and pleasantly familiar as he describes South Florida’s flora and fauna, the surf and the stars. If COVID-19 caused you to reschedule a beach trip in the summer of 2020, “Florida Man’s” sure sense of place might remind you of what you missed — and what you may continue to miss as the state keeps on changing.

FICTION

‘Florida Man’

by Tom Cooper

Random House

382 pages, $28