Northeast Florida’s literary scene is blooming bigly. It has always been active, to some extent, but it seems that in recent years, the scene has grown by leaps and bounds, to the point that, much like our music scene, it can be quite difficult to keep up with everything that’s going on. Poetry is huge. There’s a purple plethora of open-mic events, practically every week. There’s also a flourishing fiction scene. Novels, to be specific, are hot. Two local producers recently published their first—and they are both friends of mine, so here’s a few words about them.
Blake Middleton’s debut is aptly titled College Novel. Published this spring on an imprint called Apocalypse Party, it’s a snapshot of a generation (Gen Z) and its efforts to make its way in a world that simultaneously panders to it, while often seeming to have forgotten about it entirely. Is Gen Z the new Invisible Generation? It’s hard to say, but that is certainly how they feel sometimes. There is not much of a plot in the orthodox sense of the word. The book is loaded with references to artists and musicians that you will only know if you’re below a certain age.
Restoration Heights is the first novel by Wil Medearis. He graduated from Ed White High School in 1995—along with me and many others—and entered UNF; from there he went out of town, moving first to North Carolina, then to Philadelphia, where he earned his MFA in painting from the University of Pennsylvania, and then to Brooklyn, where he lives now. The book is a murder mystery set amid the gentrification boom that has altered the look and feel of his borough (and many other across the country). The story follows an artist named Reddick, a resident of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood (Medearis’ home turf). Reddick has a friend named Hannah, whose disappearance is the pivot point around which the narrative rotates. She is the Laura Palmer of this story, if you will. Medearis ably takes all the standard murder-mystery tropes and stands them on their heads, using an evolving Brooklyn as his backdrop.
Published out of Toronto by Hanover Square Press, Restoration Heights hit the New York literary scene with a splash. Duval’s own Wil Medearis was lauded by The New York Times and feted at the prestigious 92nd Street Y. By the time the finished product came out, the author was already hard at work on a second novel, this one set in Jacksonville during the 1990s. He came home to do some research just a couple months ago. Restoration Heights was among the best-received first novels in recent years, and all indications are that even better is yet to come.
We all love a good novel, of course, but the old saying that “truth is stranger than fiction” is often most obvious to those of us who are lucky (?) enough to live in Florida. One of the strangest stories published here this year is the tale of a young man who grew up dirt-poor—Great Depression dirt-poor—and who pulled himself up by the bootstraps to become a city councilman, then mayor (probably Jacksonville’s greatest), and now reigns as the ranking elder statesman of Northeast Florida politics. That “young man,” of course, is one Jake Maurice Godbold, and he is the subject of a new book by veteran political operator Mike Tolbert. The volume boasts one of the longest titles we’ve ever seen: Jake! The Last Southern Populist Mayor Who Transformed Jacksonville Florida from a Sleepy City with an Inferiority Complex into a Dynamic Metropolis with a Can-Do Attitude.
The title may be conspicuously long-winded, but it’s true. The man they call
“Big Jake” never lies. He is, if anything, way too truthful for his own good. Exhibit A: his recent return to political warfare. In the run-up to this year’s municipal elections, Godbold was in a brief bit of public feud with Lenny Curry, the sixth man to succeed Goldbold as mayor. All six have had to exist in the outsized shadow of their predecessor, who reigned from 1978 to 1987. Tolbert’s tome, published by Outskirts Press, is the definitive treatment of Godbold’s life, a refreshing recapitulation of what some consider the city’s glory days, an era of aspirational swag embodied by the man himself.
For younger readers, most of whom may have never heard of Godbold, this book is like a crash course in the last 50 years of local history. Current and future scholars of the region will find Jake! as indispensable as James Crooks’ legendary Jacksonville: The Consolidation Story. It’s a fitting tribute to a man who did more to create the city we know today than almost anyone, and its timing is a subtle reminder that, even at 85 years old, he is still in the game.