Russell Persson - The Narváez expedition continues to be a failed one, of course, but getting lost in Russell Persson’s strange language feels like a beautiful and hallucinatory triumph


Russell Persson, The Way of Florida, Little Island Press, 2017.


Relentless, urgent and above all musical, this expertly crafted début novel recasts the tragic story of the failed Narváez expedition – a calamitous attempt to establish Spanish colonies along the Gulf Coast – in bracing, beautiful language. A timely narrative of botched colonialism, The Way of Florida radically reimagines the parameters and responsibilities of the historical novel.

Russell Persson revisits the ill-fated Narváez expedition of the sixteenth century, which saw a group of some 600 Spanish, Greek, and Portuguese explorers arrive on the coast of Florida intent on establishing preliminary colonial settlements and garrisons. Of the 300 sent inland to explore, only four survived an eight-year ordeal: three minor members of the Spanish nobility and an enslaved Moor. Their story comes down to us via La Relación, the official report compiled by one of the nobles, published in 1542, as well as many other subsequent retellings. Persson’s The Way of Florida is arguably the most linguistically complex, rich, sinuous, and maybe even heroic.

"The Way of Florida is, for the figures in the narrative, a doomed and reckless course. But for Russell Persson it is the manner by which he achieves absolute triumph. Here is a strange, bracing, wholly original novel, just when we need it."  – Sam Lipsyte

"Russell Persson does with Cabeza de Vaca's narrative what Nick Cave did with traditional murder ballads: hones it, gives it a sharp edge, and makes it seem almost uncomfortably close. An incantatory and compelling read, one that will stick with you long after the book is closed." – Brian Evenson

“I am old, and am, therefore, in accordance with nature's regime, not the fertilest field for new fruit to find a furrow in and flourish therefrom skyward, spreading its yield over all below, capturing in shadow the occult origin it sprang from. Dark, dark, dark, this incessantly numinous account of the funding of the planetary genius which, at any cost, the terrible genies of appropriation disport themselves on native soil, makes for an unprecedented work of language gorgeously twisted by the torsions of narrative necessity. It also makes for a great book. Entrancing in its choral pursuit of the realities of man’s irresistible consumption of man, The Way of Florida rushes Russell Persson to the fore of notable American novelists, men and women who refuse the conventions handed them and confound the vicious lures of the marketplace. Ah, good conscience tells me I might instead have simply – and thus more truly – said, 'I’m floored'.” – Gordon Lish

"The Way of Florida is a brilliant take on the historical novel. The Narváez expedition continues to be a failed one, of course, but getting lost in Russell Persson’s strange language feels like a beautiful and hallucinatory triumph." – Michael Kimball

"Persson, God, where does one begin? There is a seriousness to the pages of Russell Persson that is rarely seen in this age of the instantaneous. Read Persson closely and you will see that he is extremely defiant. He is also extremely subtle in his defiance. Persson will further subvert a beautiful acoustical event if he sees that the event can be anticipated before its conclusion." – David McLendon


There is a beyond madness I believe we have in us. A deep yellow like a metal stone who turns and as an ember it heats with the wind up against it. The madness lugged in and out of the rooms of us through doors of us we hide it from the wind the lightest duff which up against the madness it fans the ember into that hottest stone who puts a body along some odd path and writes a script for each man differently and strange this hottest babel is unheard the notions peculiar to each man come alive and now freed enact a rite wholly fucked and bright to only that man and none other. This solitary trip at once outside the man and truly within. A beyond madness who somehow does not ride with us floated here aloud but instead the madness though fanned I do not know how it remains inside these men. It seems for some the lightest alter can throw him into the gut of it. It could be that our hunger has a taller role or the water we have needed and without these deep wants it would avail the stone to become odd within us. But instead we ride floated here and our madness is small for now though I can not believe for good.

Read an interview with Russell Persson about the writing of The Way of Florida:
UNSAID: What role does research play in your treatment of what appear to be historical events? In what ways is research either a help or a hindrance?
RP: Research has provided the factual armature that my narrative is built on. Throwing clay on that armature and pushing it around and forming the contours that I find engaging or musical or surprising or terrifying is the real joy. I do end up at times going back to the facts to give a rough form to where the story is going, but I try not to get too deep into the research because if I feel like I am guiding or anticipating the story too strictly then I’ll lose that sense of play and abandon which is required for me to get at least that first draft down.
UNSAID: Your treatment of mapping and chronology, combined with your description of jungle landscape, create a strong sense of anxiety, the feeling that a creeping reality will invade and engulf all, unless the world is constantly rationalized. Is this feeling merely an effect within your story, or is it expressive of your own understanding of human experience?
RP: In the Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca, it’s a disaster from the start. The ships are blown by a storm, the navigator doesn’t know where they are, the competency of the commander Narvaez is questioned. After they reach land and decide to explore inland, they are walking through a place unknown, unmapped, populated by an unknown, possibly hostile people. When I was reading the Narrative, it made me anxious to imagine what it must have been like in those circumstances. I wanted to try to convey some of that anxiety, and to bring some of that anxiety to the idiom.
The sense of anxiety and that creeping reality you mention might also have to do with the process of writing. When I am writing well, I feel like I’m an actor playing the role of some overwhelmed scribe trying to keep up with the story. It’s a fugue state that is wonderful to be in and it produces its own kind of anxiety, but like any ideal state it’s not always easy to access. That creeping reality is daily life, just outside the gates, constantly reminding me that I need to go back to my job, pay the bills, mow the lawn. So that anxiety might have more to do with not so much my understanding of the human experience but instead my understanding of the experience of writing.
UNSAID: It was hard for me to read The Way of Florida without thinking of Orlando, the title of two literary landmarks, and also the home of one of the world’s great theme parks. For me, your story connotes a wide variety of texts, historical and contemporary, aesthetic and vulgar, heroic and absurd – all of which add to the richness of the experience of reading. To what extent did writing proceed and work with an awareness of your production arising within an intertextual field?
RP: I wonder sometimes if it’s possible to start over with a word. In the original Narrative, “the way of Florida” simply refers to a direction of travel. But a contemporary reader can find so many different meanings for the word Florida. We all seem to have an emotion or an opinion about Florida. When I decided on the title “The Way of Florida,” I loved how ambiguous and loaded it was, how it could be filled up and decorated before you read a line of the text. And at the same time, I loved how it might be possible to rebuild the word itself.
Maybe it’s not possible to start over with a word, but I like the idea of trying. Jack Gilbert resurrected the word heart for me, which I believed had been lost for good. So I think there is still the possibility to take words to which we have assigned almost inseparable meaning and to present them for reevaluation.
UNSAID: The sudden appearance of complex run-on sentences in your story catches the reader off guard, demanding great feats of cognition or respiration if the movement of the story is not to be interrupted. To what extent do you find writing and reading to be not pleasures so much as mental and physical ordeals?
RP: I feel those longer sentences are a natural product of the story, told at pace and rhythm and length at which certain passages should be told to reflect the subject. Writing those sentences is a pleasure and I hope that pleasure is felt by the reader as well. But I do understand that those wandering sentences require a form of attention that we’re not used to working with. So in that way I can understand that it might take some persuasion or some kind of instruction to get the reader to that place where that form of attention lives. These lines might serve to, indirectly, instruct the reader on what might be an appropriate form of attention to bring to the pages.
UNSAID: I’m fascinated by what I might call infixes or intrusions in the course of your narrative. I see these principally in the form of sudden expletives, conjectures, and proclamations. Each of these seems to figure as a moment of shock, a repetition of an unsaid trauma driving the underpinning of the narrative. Can you say anything about the origin or function of exclamation in your work?
RP: The first expletive came about as a way to speak to the muted nature of the original Narrative, in which almost all emotion is removed to make room for place names, directions, distances traveled, measurements of time, descriptions of the native people. In my retelling of the narrative, I wanted to inhabit more of the reactionary and the felt. But once I started using these expletives I realized they were assigning themselves a different role, like a crash that breaks into an expected rhythm of sounds. I often listen to music that has elements of dissonance, and I realized these expletives were like those notes you don’t expect to hear, notes whose function is to intentionally bend away from the expected note to give you something odd and unexpected. This can be unsettling, or shocking, but you’ll see that bend in the path and by following the path you might get to see or hear something differently than if the path was straight.