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Family secrets spilled in Iowa City author Larry Baker’s latest book, ‘Wyman and the Florida Knights’
Feb. 12, 2022 7:00 am
Iowa City author Larry Baker’s latest novel, “Wyman and the Florida Knights,” is a story both mythic and intimate. It begins in 1866 and ends on Election Day 2016. It has Biblical underpinnings but is also grounded in contemporary reality — with a healthy dose of 1950s and 1960s small town nostalgia and nefariousness in between. In Knightville — especially for the Knights themselves — family secrets are plentiful and drive the drama of the book.
The middle third of the book takes us far from Knightville and reads like a John Irving novel as Peter Wyman’s romantic antics with a younger woman serve to elevate his skill as a portrait artist. He wins great fame, but loses much in the exchange.
When the world in which we all live intrudes on the story in the final third of the book, the effect is jarring at first, but Baker uses the divisiveness of the near past to good effect as various characters must come to terms with a changing world — and with the real world resolutions of their myth-spiced stories.
In addition to the Knight family and Wyman, the book boosts two other intriguing characters — a panther who haunts the entire tale and Angel, a stripper with a heart of gold who, as her name suggests, has the power to bring change to people and places who are resistant to it.
“Wyman and the Florida Knights” may well be Baker’s best book. It is ambitious (of that ambition, Baker told me, “I didn’t know it when I was writing it that, one, it was going to be so different from everything else that I’ve ever written and, two, that I was going to try to do as much as I was doing.”) and thought-provoking and populated by an intriguing cast of characters caught somewhere between the past and the future — the future is about to make its presence felt as the novel comes to a close.
Baker answered questions by email and by phone.
Q: What was the original spark for “Wyman and the Florida Knights?” Did you have the Knight family history in mind first or was Wyman's tale the initial impetus of the novel?
A: I always wanted to write a “Bible” story. Especially intriguing to me was the Cain/Abel story. That was my original plan. A Florida version of Cain and Abel. So I had two cousins involved in a rivalry that revolved around murder. And then I started seeing the possibility of other themes — rich versus poor, law versus justice, et al. Florida was the ideal location. The story opens in 1866, and the Florida environment was still primeval. A northern preacher mistakes it for a garden where he can build his new church, but the local guide reminds him that Florida is not a garden; it is a jungle, and jungles are a lot more dangerous than gardens. So I started with the Knight family ancestors in 1866 and traced their decline up to the election of 2016.
Q: I'm interested in the roles of Peter Wyman and Angel as outsiders and how you think of their roles in the book. Are they intended to highlight features of the insular community they become part of or do you think of them as change makers who redirect the future of Knightville in one way or another?
A: Neither character was in my original plan. But a hundred pages into the Knight history I realized that I needed an outsider to act as a catalyst for one of the Knights to reveal his darkest secrets. A portrait painter who is famous for revealing the souls of his subjects seemed plausible. But I also quickly realized that Wyman needed his own sins to reveal. And his artistic hubris, just like the Knight family’s hubris, means that he is headed for a fall as well. Wyman made a Faustian bargain. He lost everything else of value in the process. Norton Knight sinned for love. Peter Wyman sinned for fame and success.
Angel? A total surprise to me. I was planning to have her in one scene in a strip club, but within a page I realized that she was unique. More than a guilt-free stripper or swinger, she saves one Knight, and in that process she might just have saved the town of Knightville itself.
Angel is the real change agent. She’s the catalyst who changes Sonny (Knight) — who in my original version was a villain — into someone very commendable.
Yes, Wyman and Angel are both outsiders. Wyman is the passive observer. Angel is a force of nature, my version of a pornographic Wonder Woman.
Q: I'm also interested in the shadowy panther who haunts the book and seems to establish that everyone in the tale is, in the end, an outsider. In your estimation, what does the animal bring to the narrative?
A: A literary answer? Go read Henry James’ “Beast in the Jungle.”
The story is about men and women who think they are in control, especially in control of the natural world. The Knight family has made a fortune by exploiting the resources of nature, but that panther is always there, waiting. It is a myth, but also nature’s avenger. For the men in the story, it is also the darkest part of their own souls, and it will never die. OK, OK, perhaps I am channeling too much Joseph Conrad?
Q: Your recurring character Harry Ducharme makes a brief appearance — and it seems to me that Peter and the woman he calls "Alice"— Peter’s muse — can be traced to another of your works. What appeals to you about recurring characters?
A: Harry Ducharme, from “A Good Man,” of all my characters, is my personal favorite. I suspect that almost all writers would agree that a fascinating character in one story is as real as a fascinating person in real life. In fact, a good character’s “life” exists outside any single work by a writer. The character is alive. After “A Good Man,” I knew I wanted to give Harry another chance to “live” in fiction. I have rewritten my political novel “Athens/America” and made Harry a major character in that story. Not sure if I will publish it, but anybody who liked Harry in “A Good Man” will be very interested in how he once had a radio show in Athens before he moved to Atlanta and then to Florida. Remember — Harry Ducharme is originally from Iowa. Harry also will be a character in my next book, but only his voice on late night radio.
Alice? In my first novel, “Flamingo Rising,” the Alice character was inspired by a real person. But here’s an essential distinction. A character inspired by a real person is not that person. In fact, once the character is created, the real person is irrelevant. A very perceptive reader of “Flamingo” once told me that although most people might find Alice to be a compelling free spirit, she also had a dark side to her, a manipulative power, and that she was a person who liked to toy with the lives of other people. I did not see it when I wrote the character, but rereading it I had one of those proverbial light bulbs go off in my head. I had created a character who I had not fully explored myself. I created her, but I did not understand my own creation. “Wyman” is the culmination of the analysis of the Alice character. And she will never appear again. Call it an exorcism?
Q: You keep telling your loyal readers that you are going to stop writing, but I see that you are currently at work on a new book. What can you tell me about it at this point?
A: I must be a writing addict. I keep trying to stop. But stories are out there. Or should I say they are “in here?” In my head. Thing is, I know I am losing time. But I am also actually completing a circle. My first book was about a giant drive-in movie theater. My next book is about a giant indoor movie palace. Both are based on theaters I used to manage. But, at the end of my career, I am finally letting my natural tendency to exaggerate reality in my stories. That tendency is going full magical realism. A giant movie theater full of ghosts of people who have performed on its stage: Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Harry Houdini, Marilyn Monroe, and even the ghost of my hero Harry Chapin. With ghosts and magic realism, there are no writing rules — except to be entertaining.