Deserving the Unspeakable: On Larry Baker’s “Wyman and the Florida Knights”

January 14, 2022

In Larry Baker’s newest novel, Wyman and the Florida Knights, characters cut to the chase. We get plenty of dialogue but little talk of weather or of what’s for dinner. Instead, characters explore each other’s psyches, and they’re prone to declaration; they know what they want and aren’t afraid to say it. They gauge their power in relation to one another deliberately and with occasional self-delusion.

Wyman begins with Thomas Knight, a white man moving from Pennsylvania to Florida shortly after the Civil War in hopes of founding a church. Enter Pythagoras Jones, an Egyptian guide familiar with the land and its people who has “acquired a slave’s habit of dissembling around white folks.” Eventually, Knight’s venture expands and, in time, the town of Knightsville is born.

Baker then moves to the 1960s, where we meet cousins Jit and Norton Knight. One becomes the town sheriff; the other grows reclusive within his immense wealth. Both fall in love with the same woman, and so begins a fracture that extends to 2016, where Baker incorporates the lives of Jit’s daughter, Sandra — who serves as the local newspaper editor — and Norton’s son, Sonny. (Notably, Sandra’s mother mysteriously disappeared years prior.)

Halfway through Wyman, we meet Peter Wyman himself, a famous artist escaping a troubled past. While Wyman paints a portrait commissioned by Norton — Wyman in his signature silk pajamas, Norton in a white suit — the two men learn of each other’s darkest secrets, including the truth behind Knightville’s deepest mystery.

Throughout, characters navigate religious reckoning, the 2016 election (including a frenzied MAGA rally), an elusive panther, questions of fidelity, shifting but enduring race relations, and more. Wyman is about many things — legacy, perception, redemption — but, at its core, it is about power. Baker explores these dynamics, and if the result is muddled, it also raises evergreen questions.

For example, at one point, Norton visits Wyman’s studio and observes his paintings: “Women asleep. Women in mourning and women in ecstasy. It took a few minutes, but Knight realized. Not a man anywhere. Not a man in any of these women’s lives.” This assessment would be more convincing if we didn’t also know that Wyman has slept with multiple students (rationalized because “those young girls pursued as much as they were pursued”), that Norton has committed his own serious offenses, and that women throughout Wyman are referred to as beautiful or attractive and are often framed (sometimes literally) within a male gaze.

It’s hard, then, not to take Norton’s observation with a hefty grain of salt; perhaps that is the point. He is, after all, himself a readily flawed character who lives in ever smaller spaces: “A room would be arranged as if for a real estate viewing, and then he would shut the door and never enter again,” Baker writes. “Only his closet and the adjoining bathroom served a purpose anymore.”

Elsewhere, we learn that Norton’s son, Sonny, slaps his first wife and that, in their ensuing divorce, he slips the court nude photos as proof of her affairs. The problem — or one of them — is that Sonny himself has taken these pictures; he is also the one who’s slept around. Later, he admits to his second wife and self-proclaimed stripper with a heart of gold, Angel, that this was “a shitty thing,” yet this act isn’t his most regrettable — that’s reserved for the time he ran over a bony dog in the road after a woman turned him down.

Perhaps we are being asked to pass judgment on Sonny, but curiously, Sandra weighs in toward the end of Wyman, saying, “Sonny’s first wife … was a bitch after Norton’s money … And the other women he dragged around town? My shoes were smarter than they were.” Granted, Sandra likely doesn’t know the full story when she says this, but still — this is the note we end on when it comes to Sonny’s first and unnamed wife. Without offering spoilers, this happens elsewhere in the novel: A man does an unspeakable thing, but the woman might sort of deserve it.

There is, of course, some cherry picking here. Angel regularly presses Sonny, asking him why “all men think they think the big thoughts” and seems to know him better than he does himself. Sandra certainly has a supportive man in her corner (one she’s seduced, but they’ve since become friends). And characters doing bad things and bearing contradiction is at the center of good fiction.

But on balance, it matters in Wyman who is punching up, so to speak, and who is punching down, who is in control and who isn’t, and who wields power and how. Yet Baker doesn’t readily parse out the nuance here. At one point, Wyman’s partner Sarah tells him, “You think you’re in control. Those girls in your past? Most of them just wanted to be as free as boys for once. Lucky for them, you’re actually a well-lit street.” But Wyman is their much older male professor; he is in control, or has the responsibility of being in control, at the very least. What does it mean for Baker to have Sarah disagree?

Race gets a similarly complicated treatment. Abe Jones, Jit’s deputy and Pythagoras’s descendent, is Black and loyal and wishes Jit were his father at the same time he rightly challenges Jit’s paternalistic attitude toward Knightville’s Black residents. Later, we learn that Jit regularly calls upon Abe after hours for personal favors. The deputy admits that “[o]utsiders might have seen it as an abuse of power by the sheriff” but that “Abe did not. Abe saw it as trust.” Humans — and relationships — are messy and can be many things at once, of course, but does Abe ever wrestle more directly with how both his race and his job title might factor into what Jit asks of him?

At times, he seems to get close. When Wyman says, “Norton once called [Jit] the Lone Ranger, so I guess that makes you . . .” Abe dryly replies, “The deputy.” But then, a couple of pages later, Wyman actually does call Abe “Tonto,” effectively getting the last word on the matter.

Baker is the author of three previous novels, and he’s been praised for his ability to combine mythmaking with “the Florida wit of Carl Hiassen.” And it’s true: Baker brings Florida to the page to powerful effect. The narrative is infused with its humidity, its wildness. Baker writes:

The river had narrowed, and the tangled foliage on each bank seemed to reach for the other side. In that dim world, Knight heard sounds that had to have been formed and exhaled from a nightmare. Screams and caws of unseen birds, the splash and snorting of primeval water beasts …

Reading from my position presented an interesting conundrum: Do the male characters believe the stories they tell themselves? Baker knows his men and women alike are sinners — that’s clear — and he doesn’t offer up pat answers.

This question feels especially apropos in a novel about art, about creators and subjects. The act of reading Wyman could be said to both mirror and subvert the titular character’s own process. As Wyman notes, “In their first meeting, he would ask a direct question: How do you see yourself? And he would find a way to paint that. Not how he saw them, but how they saw themselves.”

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Nicole VanderLinden’s fiction appears in CrazyhorseCimarron ReviewEpiphany, Shenandoah, and elsewhere, and in 2020, Lauren Groff selected her story as the winner of the New Ohio Review Fiction Prize. She serves as the fiction/nonfiction book review editor for Colorado Review, is a reader for Ploughshares, and was recently awarded a Tennessee Williams fiction scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She lives in Iowa City and is finishing her first novel.