It's been more than 10 years since popular Orlando Sentinel columnist Bob Morris was abruptly buried by that paper, dropping off the face of the planet as far as his fans were concerned. They were forced to go cold turkey after eight years of dependency on the rakish good-ol'-boy charm that flirted from his weekly "Sunday at Bob's" column in that paper's Florida magazine, and his full-of-spit columns that ran twice a week in the Local & State section. He was a rogue and a rambler, and played loose with deadlines; being clever as hell and full of irreverent fun was Morris' highly marketable stock in trade, and Sentinel management never could figure out how to harness it.
Where's Bob now, I've wondered over the years, still missing his folksy turns of phrase and his insider knowledge of Old Florida hideouts and habits, from seafood joints to cooking fresh Zellwood corn. Does he still dress in flip-flops and tropical shirts and hang out on the beach?
Yes, he does. And so does his fictional alter ego Zack Chasteen, the lead character in Morris' debut mystery novel, Bahamarama, who, in manner and dress, reflects the Morris of old and new. Released by St. Martin's Minotaur in October 2004, - the first in a Caribbean-based trilogy has been an adventuresome way of reintroducing us to the 21st-century Bob Morris.
The book has been a success the hardcover is in its third printing, there's an amped-up paperback run of 200,000 planned in September, the rights in Japan and Russia have already been sold and Morris is making royalties. It's been a critical success, as well, nominated by the Mystery Writers of America for the Edgar in the "Best First Novel by an American Author" category (one of six contenders). Morris didn't take home the trophy at the April 28 awards ceremony in New York City (it went to Don Lee for Country of Origin), but the recognition of the quality of the book among his peers speaks volumes. No less than Carl Hiaasen has given his seal of approval: "Sly, smart, cheerfully twisted and very funny. Morris is a natural." Dave Barry wrote, "Bahamarama is wild, weird, unpredictable, populated by exotic denizens and funny as hell." Randy Wayne White also likes it: "Bob Morris is as tough and fast as Elmore Leonard, writes about the Caribbean as knowledgeably as Jimmy Buffett, and also begins to blaze his own, stylish trail as a gifted novelist."
This is big-league stuff for Morris, a local celebrity. It's also something you won't be reading about in the Sentinel, where, even after 11 years, Morris remains persona non grata.
"The Orlando Sentinel has refused to review his book, which is trite and petty, and those folks ought to be ashamed of themselves," says a heated Bill Belleville, a respected Florida environmental author and filmmaker, and a longtime friend, colleague and champion of Morris. "I'm really pissed off. … I think the folks there were angry at him, for whatever reason, and they have sustained that anger very well."
Morris isn't sure why the Sentinel hasn't reviewed his book, or he's not saying. He is sure, though, that Bahamarama was no lucky strike. After years of rumination and planning, in 2002 Morris corralled his time and attention and wrote Bahamarama in six months. He was sure he had created something special, something that was going to elevate his status from freelance writer to published author. He weathered 25 rejections before he inked a deal with St. Martin's mystery imprint, Minotaur, for a three-book series. After years in the business, and with comfortable retirement years in mind, he was no rube in his negotiations. Jamaica Me Dead, final revisions of which Morris is sweating over now in his Winter Park home, comes out October 2005. The third book is tentatively titled Cancun Killer and is due to the publishers late this fall, before he heads out on a national tour for Jamaica Me Dead. The tour for Bahamarama was mostly in the Southeast, so the expanded exposure is another sign of the publisher's confidence in sales. (Keep up to date at www.bobmorris.net.)
The trilogy keys on Chasteen, a former strong safety for the Miami Dolphins, who spent several years behind bars for his involvement in a drug-smuggling operation. The story opens as the tough-but-charming bad boy is being released from prison in Pensacola after an unjust sentence, and is ready to hook up with his honey for a Caribbean getaway. Kidnapping, murder and other surprises follow as he is forced to settle old scores. But Chasteen is nothing if not tenacious (just like Morris), and ultimately he is triumphant in his retribution.
THE UNTOLD STORY
Morris is upfront about the Sentinel drama, though you have to draw it out of him. He enjoyed writing his columns, but says his small-minded editors never tired of busting his chops. How he came to leave the Sentinel is still a muddy issue.
By January 1994, Morris and editor John Haile were increasingly at odds. Some of Morris' columns were pulled over content that could possibly draw complaints, and he says Haile didn't like his extracurricular moneymaking activities including a gig as the anonymous radio voice in Scotty's Hardware commercials.
After being put on probation, Morris announced in a Jan. 13 column that he was resigning from his staff Sentinel position sometime in March but that he would continue to write "Sundays at Bob's" and lead the Queen Kumquat Sashay, a parade/protest that he himself had dreamed up.
It was through his increasingly popular columns that Morris had created a profile for himself as the leader and protector of the city's unconventional, who paraded with him in the infamous procession that used to precede the Light Up Orlando festival. It was a protest, of sorts, against "the city's stupid open-container law," but people turned out in droves for the liberal silliness, making Morris' marketing potential all the more powerfully clear.
Surely it was not by coincidence that one day after Orlando Weekly's Jan. 28 cover story by then-editor Jeff Truesdell on Morris' decision to resign as a staffer at the Sentinel over the acrimonious state of affairs, Haile and then-managing editor Jane Healy told him the freelance arrangement was off, and to clean out his desk. The Sentinel published an already-filed column, and Morris was gone. The finality caught even Morris by surprise.
The Sentinel's only other pronouncement regarding Morris came March 19, 1995, when they published an apology for what had been discovered as plagiarism in an October 1993 "Sunday at Bob's" column bylined by Morris. The column, about routine-but-life-changing events that don't make it into the newspaper, was a rewrite of a column published 11 years earlier by Mike Harden of The Columbus Dispatch. "I was really worn down and I had a screw-it attitude," says Morris. "I played fast and loose with someone else's column and got caught. It was a stupid thing to do." Admission of regret aside, the incident is not something that haunts Morris or that has caused him professional repercussions.
The 1995 article extended apologies to Harden on behalf of Morris and the Sentinel (which paid a settlement to Harden). Morris says one of the lingering misunderstandings about his tenure at the Sentinel is that he was fired, when actually, he quit. But the confusion surrounding the situation, followed by the plagiarism charge, left a negative legacy.
The Sentinel hasn't remained totally silent about their former columnist since he departed 11 years ago. Late last year, Dean Johnson of Commander Coconut fame printed a short item in the Calendar section about a book-signing for Bahamarama at Urban Think (against orders not to, according to the rumor mill). And there was a story by freelancer Sara Sheckler published in the Lake County edition, Dec. 10, 2004, about Morris' appearance in Leesburg at a historical dedication of his family home, where he signed copies of his book. But the story, which detailed Morris' deep Lake County roots, never saw print in Orlando.
Sentinel Arts & Entertainment editor Mary Frances Emmons says the paper hasn't reviewed Bahamarama because there just isn't space for everything. "Out of about 10,000 titles released annually, we get about 200 titles a week in here and run maybe six reviews, so it comes down to choices," Emmons wrote in an e-mail. "Bob's book at the time of our last messaging was around 64,000 on Barnes & Noble's list; anything below 10,000 is considered not a terrific response. Also it is a debut genre book, which would get from us at most a paragraph in a roundup."
A NEW DAY
There's a lot we don't know about the private Morris, and he was open and friendly when I talked with him one busy afternoon at his condo in Winter Park. Wearing an apron, he was cooking a feast of black beans and ham hocks, collard greens and tostones to celebrate a visit from his son, Dash, 22, a student at the University of Florida in Gainesville. His other son, Bo, 24, will graduate from Rollins College in June. (The youngest was named for the late hard-boiled crime fiction writer Dashiell Hammett, a hero to Morris.)
That afternoon, Morris was waiting for the FedEx truck to deliver emergency copies of Bahamarama so he could make good on promises to his Leesburg fans, including some of his old schoolteachers. The phone didn't stop ringing business calls, organizing a keg party at Bo's house the next evening, post-hurricane condo association insurance stuff. (He's the president.)
Thanks to his wife of 27 years, Debbie, a project manager at Ewing Noble & Winn Interiors, the condo has a tasteful, comfortable Bahamarama feel banana plants, an orchid, about 30 bottles on a liquor cabinet, two large photographic prints of an unspoiled New Smyrna Beach by Steve Vaughn (a former editor at the Sentinel) titled "Deep Florida." Taking up considerable space in the efficient setup is Max, the family's burly 9-year-old clumber spaniel, who feels like he weighs 100 pounds when he sits on your foot.
Morris' generous nature and laid-back hospitality extend into his written words. He's a natural storyteller and it's hard not to get wrapped up in his telling of everyday adventures, often enhanced by a couple of beers or another favorite beverage, rum. He's a nurturing dad who cooks and shops, and can strike up a conversation wherever he goes. He's smart-alecky, knows when to call bullshit and knows his way around the Caribbean Islands and a few other places in the world. (Travel writing is still one of his passions.)
He also knows how to cook quite well in both Southern and Caribbean styles. Morris was raised in Leesburg, where his family grew ferns, a dying industry. "Yeah, I spent many a summer pulling weeds," he remembers with no fondness.
In the late 1930s, his grandfather, John S. Morris, was mayor of Leesburg, and the third owner of the recently historically dedicated Mote-Morris House at 1195 W. Magnolia St. That's the house where Morris threw keg parties back when he was a jock and student president at Leesburg High School. He was a fairly typical teen except for the four months he was paralyzed at age 15 due to Guillain-Barre syndrome, an unusual complication in cases of infectious mononucleosis, and he dropped from 165 to 80 pounds. (He still has some lingering facial paralysis.) "That laid me low for a year," he says. "But I spent that time reading. … I was a great reader of everything, from the time I was a kid."
Morris says his parents taught him to "work hard, be honest, know your family and keep your name clean."
He had a period of activism in 1969, when he was kicked out of ROTC at the University of South Carolina for attending a peace march in Washington, D.C., and missing five drills. Unfortunately, he on an ROTC scholarship at the time. "That was one time when falling on my sword was OK," he says.
He traveled through Europe and the Mideast, and did a (common for that time) stint at a kibbutz before finishing school with a journalism major at the University of Florida in 1975 at the age of 25. He spent 10 years writing a column for the Fort Myers News-Press, winning awards including the Scripps-Howard Foundation's Ernie Pyle Award for Human Interest Writing, followed by eight years at the Sentinel.
After leaving the Sentinel, Morris stepped up the freelance work and still contributes to National Geographic, Bon Appetit, Men's Fitness and The Robb Report. He also served as editor to magazines including Islands, Caribbean Travel & Life and Gulfshore Life. The Morris family relocated to Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1997, after he was hired to be editor-in-chief of AQUA, a new publication by Islands Publishing Co., but he moved back in 2001 so the kids could finish high school and take advantage of their prepaid Florida college tuition. "Now, the little bastards want to go back to California," he says.
"I was one of the few guys who read Bahamarama while he was sending out copies to agents," says friend and writer Belleville. "I thought, 'This is great. I can picture it between two hard covers.' He really engages you, and his understanding of place, from having spent so much time in the Caribbean, he makes that place come alive. … If you deconstruct that book, you'll see it's a complicated book, under the surface."
"He's always been a great storyteller," Belleville continues. "Even when he was working as a columnist for the Sentinel, it was clear then that he had this very unpretentious but clever way of telling the story. … I'm happy for him and he's truly a distinct voice. It's a shame that there isn't more recognition for it here."
While Bahamarama connects the reader with the essence of Bob Morris, the 312 pages of breezy escapism is no substitute for his insider coverage of local events and local players. And there are no plans for more columns like that in the future. Morris will continue his freelance travel writing, a vocation he loves because it also provides fodder for his books. After this trilogy is finished, he's already planning another series; this one is to be set in Florida, maybe with a woman as the lead character, he muses over a tall glass of Tucher at Fiddler's Green (where everybody knows his name.)
It's easy to see how the cult of Bob Morris is being built and how extreme merchandising could be right around the corner his own line of island recipe books; compilation CDs with Diana Krall and others of Chasteen's favorite musicians; men's tropical shirts, shorts and sandals; specially bottled rum; Bahamarama, the Movie; even Bahamarama, the Musical.
Is Morris out to make a buck, or write serious literature?
"Out to make a buck," he answers with a truthful laugh as he knocks back a slug of beer. He swallows, then adds, "If you were a serious writer, you sure wouldn't be writing genre fiction. But the reality of the market is that you have to write something that sells."
Nonetheless, he adds, mystery is a respectable genre. And Morris is ready for a respectable payoff. "Hell, yeah. I'm a pragmatist."
And a survivor.