No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, July 15, 2007

#29: The Man Who Invented Florida -- Randy Wayne White

The first of White's 'Doc Ford' books that I've read: I picked it up mostly because the plot revolves around the possible discovery of the Fountain of Youth in Mango, a small coastal town in Florida.

Ford is a marine biologist who thinks he might be on the verge of discovering a solution to turbidity, the murkiness of the once-clear Florida waters. Meanwhile, his Uncle Tucker claims to have discovered a well of healing water on his land. Apparently his gelding has regrown its testicles, and -- after Tuck smuggles a hefty dose of the water into a local rest home -- his Native American friend Joseph also experiences a new lease of life, one that takes him out of the rest home and back to his old haunts in the Everglades.

All would be simpler if three incomers (an environmental consultant, a surveyor and a TV personality) hadn't gone missing in the area. White gradually reveals their fate (and their unexpected resilience) in a masterful and amusing way. En route, there's the issue of who owns the land where the Fountain founts; whether the State will succeed in expanding the Everglades National Park; and whether the average tourist would be more appreciative of Fountain water if it were cherry-flavoured rather than sulphurous.
It was sunset, the pearly after-time, and the sky over Sanibel Island was wind-streaked with cantaloupe orange, purple swirls of cloud. Beyond the docks, mangroves settled charcoal black, blurring into smoky hedges as light drained from the bay. The lights of the marina bloomed on, and out of the closing darkness came the squawk of night herons hunting crabs on the mudflats and the mountain-stream sound of tidal current dragging past the pilings of Ford's house.

White has an excellent eye for landscape and detail: the mosquito-ridden swamps, the mazy creeks and islands, the suddenness of a squall on open water. He's also good on the historical aspects; the Calusa nation that may or may not have had its capital in Mango (there are Indian mounds on a lot of the islands), the early Hispanic explorations of the area, and Joseph's murky genetic background.

There's a deeper philosophical thread, too, about scams and self-promotion, Disney and the National Enquirer, ecology and environment and the power of the dollar.

The Man Who Invented Florida covers similar territory to Hiaasen's eco-thrillers, but it's different in tone: more reflective and less headlong, and rather more character-driven. Ford, Tuck, Ford's hippie friend Tomlinson and the rejuvenated Joseph Egret are all solid, three-dimensional and fascinating characters, and the backstory between Ford and his uncle, though only hinted, is dark enough to make me eager to read more in the series.

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