The Flamingo Rising

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Overview

In this touching, hilarious novel of the heart and mind, of dreams and memory, of desire and first love, Abe Lee comes of age in the 1960s, living with his unforgettable family at the Flamingo Drive-In Theatre on a scrubby patch of coast between Jacksonville and St. Augustine, Florida. There, some of America's last sweet moments of innocence are unfolding.

For Abe's father, Hubert, there's nothing better than presenting larger-than-life Hollywood fantasies on his vast silver ...

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1998 Trade paperback New. No dust jacket as issued. Never read, no remainder marks Trade paperback (US). Glued binding. 336 p. Audience: General/trade.

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Overview

In this touching, hilarious novel of the heart and mind, of dreams and memory, of desire and first love, Abe Lee comes of age in the 1960s, living with his unforgettable family at the Flamingo Drive-In Theatre on a scrubby patch of coast between Jacksonville and St. Augustine, Florida. There, some of America's last sweet moments of innocence are unfolding.

For Abe's father, Hubert, there's nothing better than presenting larger-than-life Hollywood fantasies on his vast silver screen. Nothing, that is, except gleefully sparring with Turner West--a funeral home operator who doesn't much appreciate the noise and merriment from the drive-in next door. Within the lively orbit of this ongoing feud is Abe's mother, Edna Marie, whose calm radiance conceals deep secrets; his sister, Louise, who blossoms almost too quickly into a stunning, willful young woman; and Judge Lester, a clumsy man on the ground who turns graceful when he takes to the sky, towing the Flamingo banner behind his small plane. Then Abe falls for Turner's beautiful daughter Grace. That's when, long before the Fourth of July festivities, the fireworks really begin. . . .

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Imagine Romeo and Juliet set in 1960s Florida, only this time the heads of the Montague and Capulet families are, respectively, the owner of America's largest drive-in movie theater and the proprietor of the town funeral parlor. Imagine, too, that Romeo is a Korean adoptee who is deflowered by the drive-in concession-stand girl before his first tryst with his Juliet. These are the basic ingredients of Larry Baker's ambitious and original first novel, The Flamingo Rising, which combines a Flannery O'Connor-esque preoccupation with religious faith with the chatty narrative ease of Eudora Welty. The result is an alternately hilarious and heartbreaking tale that delivers a wholly original take on the classic bildungsroman.

Despite some similarities, The Flamingo Rising departs radically from the typical coming-of-age story. For one thing, Abe, our protagonist and narrator, is Korean; he and his gorgeous sister, Louise, are adopted as infants when their American father, Hubert Lee, is in Korea during the war and decides, impulsively, to bring two babies back to his wife in Florida. For another, Baker chooses to have Abe tell the narrative in flashback. Although we can glean that Abe the adult has not only survived the trials and tragedies of his adolescence, but thrived (thanks to his family inheritance, he is a rich man, happily married to Grace, his Juliet, and the father of three sons), it is also true that the novel ends on Abe's 16th birthday, with the occurrence of an unexpected and devastating tragedy. Abe keeps secret the inadvertent yet fatal mistake he made that has led to this tragedy; it is known only to him and his trusted friend and coworker, Alice Kite. Thus, despite previous declarations of the grown Abe's happiness, we are not at all sure by the end of the novel that we are leaving his 16-year-old self safely on the cusp of adulthood. In between the closing events of the novel and the present moment from which Abe narrates -- reminiscing as a fulfilled husband and father -- lies the mystery of Abe's forgiveness both of himself and of his father (a process that could perhaps make for a fascinating second novel).

Hubert Thomas Lee, Abe's father, is a larger-than-life, eccentric visionary, and also one of Baker's best characters. Hailing from a wealthy tobacco family in Winston-Salem, the charismatic Lee is alternately magnanimous and petty, grandiose and heartbreakingly vulnerable. It is his idea to build the world's largest drive-in theater and call it the Flamingo, his idea to use pioneering means of advertising and marketing that make his theater the most popular in the state. Lee's unexplainable but instant hatred for Turner West, the somber but peaceful proprietor of a neighboring funeral home, causes terrible problems for young Abe, who has fallen hopelessly, irretrievably in love with West's daughter, Grace. Matters are complicated further when it soon becomes obvious to everyone -- everyone, that is, except Hubert Thomas Lee -- that Mr. West has fallen in love with his beloved wife, Edna Scott Lee, although his affections are never, at least physically, returned.

Dancing around the periphery of these events are a cast of characters that are no less vivid despite playing smaller roles. There is Louise, Abe's beautiful sister, whose talents will propel her far away from this small town, and Polly Jackson, the voluptuous concession-stand worker whose thunder is inadvertently stolen by Alice, Abe's oldest friend and coworker. There is Pete Maws, a tiny black man who arrives on the Lees' doorstep as if by providence and becomes an integral part of their life and business, and Judge Harry Lester, a nervous man whose only grace occurs in the air, when he is flying his Piper, trailing the advertising banners that will make the Flamingo the sensation of the state. Finally, there is Frank, Louise's beloved dog, who, like Mr. Lee, is cursed with age-old angers and enmities that cause him to rise up and injure those he loves most.

Tragedy occurs in the novel, yes, but it is tempered by moments of genuine hilarity. Witness the description of the evening of one of the elder Lee's great marketing ploys -- the evening he joins forces with one Saul Mixon, "The P.T. Barnum of the Sexual Revolution," the man who created three separate documentaries about childbirth. "Birth" is the Flamingo's first film of 1968:

"Birth" was an hour and a half, but it was not until the last fifteen minutes that you actually got your money's worth.... A real pregnant woman...was wheeled into the delivery room, and then, on the largest theater screen in the world, the audience was put where the doctor was -- right between her legs looking directly at "Birth".... Water broke and poured towards the Flamingo playground. And then from the cradle of civilization came a head, a round bulge that pushed against a reluctant opening...and then, as if on a coiled spring, the whole body popped out, splotchy and still attached to a cord of life that was trailing back to Mesopotamia.... That should have been enough to see, but Saul Mixon had more. Why shouldn't future obstetricians see the afterbirth? We heard that groan pouring out of the four hundred parked cars.... It was a masculine groan, but the worst was not over for any of the males on the lot that night.... Between a rubber-gloved thumb and forefinger, a tiny wad of baby flesh was stretched, and then what looked like a medieval corkscrew was placed on the tip, and with a decisive twist the baby flesh became circumcised boy flesh.... Even the women were quiet. But for all the men, after an hour and a half of pizza and Cokes and hot dogs and hamburgers and meatball sandwiches and french fries and pickles and chocolate -- it was too much. Dozens of male heads leaned out of windows. Some were able to get to a toilet, sometimes having to lean on their wife's arm....Casualties were all over the field.

Baker ends the novel with an enormous conflagration, what we are perhaps meant to see as a purifying fire, one that will allow the members of the Lee family to start all over from scratch. But is there any such thing? Abe's purported happiness seems a little too easily earned. Fires, we know, may consume, but they also leave ashes. Just before the final conflagration, Abe makes a decision that some would interpret as pure cruelty, that others may interpret as showing that he has finally reached adulthood. With this ambiguous ending, as with the previous 300 pages, Baker shows himself an inspired chronicler of a complex, unforgettable family.

From the Publisher
Excerpts from reviews of Larry Baker's The Flamingo Rising

"A first novel that dares mix the Icarus, Oedipus and Earhart myths, risks a Romeo and Juliet update, plunders Dante, references the Bible, rewrites movie history and inside-outs the American past. Yet Baker's book is far from pretentious. It's one of the more endearingly adept debuts to come along in a while....A novel that is as fully realized as it is inventive,
humorous and heartaching."

--Los Angeles Times

"Like his flamingo, Baker never loses his footing."

--The Star Ledger

"[The Flamingo Rising] is an American original, as big and as full of promise as a drive-in movie screen, formed out of the grist and gristle of late 20th century fiction."

--Atlanta Constitution

"This is much more than a sum of memorable parts; it is a literary tour de force, a study of barriers built and torn down."

--New Orleans Times-Picayune

"This pitch-perfect first novel is reminiscent of the best of John
Irving....Like the giant July 4th fireworks display toward which the story builds, this engaging, moving novel sends up one sparkler after another on its way to a crash-bang, heart-stopping ending."

--Publishers Weekly

"The coming of age story is done to a fine turn in Baker's absolutely delightful first novel, which is also a clever spin on the Romeo and
Juliet theme."

--Booklist

"A truly affecting work, and an inventive one."

--Kirkus Reviews

"[Baker's] own sense of theatre is so grand that only after three hundred pages does everything come joltingly into focus....Larry Baker is writing for grownups but he remembers how it felt not to be one, and renders the experiences in unforced, unshowy prose, neither folksy nor formal. The result is a novel that's both modest and surprisingly seductive."

--The New Yorker

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A crazed dachshund-terrier is kept alone in a tower. A funeral-home owner shoots daily at the neon cowboy marquee of the neighboring drive-in theater. A skywriter crash-lands promoting the film Psycho. With people and circumstances just that side of ordinary, this pitch-perfect first novel is reminiscent of the best of John Irving.

In 1953, the Flamingo is featured in Life as the world's largest drive-in theater: a 150-foot-high Florida oceanside tower serves as the theater screen. Fifteen years later, the tower-screen is home to Hubert Lee, Edna Scott and their two adopted Korean childrenand a chronic sun-blocking nuisance to mortician Turner West. The feud between Lee and West is hilarious and tragic, as the ostensible land battle really a struggle for Edna's heart obstructs the burgeoning love between Lee's son, Abraham Isaac, and West's daughter, Grace. An Asian among rednecks, narrator Abe/Izzy recounts with much warmth and little animus his coming-of-age in a world gone slightly madcap.

Like the giant July 4th fireworks display toward which the story builds, this engaging, moving novel sends up one sparkler after another on its way to a crash-bang, heart-stopping ending.

Library Journal
If the 100,000-copy first printing is any measure, this debut novel about true love and feuding families in 1950s Florida is something special.
Library Journal
If the 100,000-copy first printing is any measure, this debut novel about true love and feuding families in 1950s Florida is something special.
LA Times
Wondrous...Humorous and heart-aching...One of the most endearingly adept debuts to come along in a while.
New Yorker
A winning first novel...Baker is writing for grown-ups, but he remembers how it felt not to be one, and renders the experience in unforced, unshowy prose, neither folksy nor formal. The result is a novel that's both modest and surprisingly seductive.
Kirkus Reviews
Give newcomer Baker points for audacity: He sets out to write a novel that's a highly original coming-of-age tale, a story of warring families, a mediation on the complex nature of familial affection, and a tale of matricide—among other things. And, in at least some of his intentions, he succeeds.

Abraham Issac Lee, the son of a turbulent, wealthy, deeply eccentric southerner, is looking back at his childhood in the relatively benign precincts of 1950s and '60s Florida. His father settles there after the Korean War, and decides to build a drive-in theater featuring the world's largest outdoor screen. He does so, with the help of a believably odd crew of helpers. The drive-in, vast, gaudy, is an immediate success. The downside is that Lee has chosen to build it in proximity to a large, elegant funeral home, and the two patriarchs begin a long, increasingly nasty battle to see who'll dominate the neighborhood. Matters become even more complicated when a teenage Abe falls in love with Grace, the funeral director's only daughter, even as he's being pursued by a rather enigmatic woman who's quietly assumed the management of the drive-in. This would likely be sufficient plot for many writers, but Baker wants more, and he deftly interweaves storylines involving the question of identity and family (Abe and his sister, both adopted, are Korean), the way in which public dramas (here, everything from the Cold War to the death of JFK) impact on private lives, and on love's crippling power. The novel's strengths are its set-pieces: Abe's gentle courtship of Grace, a rowdy, comic Fourth of July celebration, and, on a far grimmer note, the fiery end of the drive-in and Abe's innocence.

The problem is that there's simply too much here—too many contending storylines and moods crowding each other out. This is, at times, a truly affecting work, and an inventive one, but too clamorous in its parts to be a complete success.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345427021
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/28/1998
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 332
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Larry Baker lives with his wife and children in Iowa City, where he teaches literature and history. Currently serving his second term on the City Council of Iowa City, he is seeking reelection this fall. He can be reached at bakerl@blue.weeg.uiowa.edu.

I was raised an Army/Air Force brat. Traveled with my family all over the country and then overseas. I was introduced to my father when I was three or four.  He was sitting up in my mother's bed, sheet pulled up to the bottom of his shirtless chest, a pair of binoculars hanging from around his neck, in a room with the curtains closed. If my writing shows some character's ambivalent feelings toward his father, it is probably me using fiction as therapy.

I was married when I was eighteen. It was the Sixties. If a girl told you that she was pregnant, the expected thing to do was marry her, at least in Texas, when the girl's father was the Chief of Police. I was divorced five years later.  My ex-wife then called me to ask me to take custody of our son so she could marry a Jordanian multi-millionaire who "was all the man you  never were, Larry." I happened to be living with a young woman at the time who informed me that her being a step-mother at age  twenty was not in her contract, so I was soon a bachelor father.

Started working at a drive-in. Made a career of it. During my drive-in career I was robbed four times, shot at once, stabbed once, arrested for collusion to transport pornographic materials across state lines, beat up by a motorcycle gang in Tulsa, found a dead woman in the toilet, was attacked by an irate father who accused me of embarrassing his daughter at a Friday night full house, interrupted countless couples who were having sex in their car or van, established the unofficial obscenity standards for the state of Oklahoma by showing Deep Throat without getting arrested, caused a thirteen car pile-up on an interstate highway by showering the highway with windblown fireworks, and then there were all those episodes that I can't even put in print.

I met my present wife in graduate school. I had just recently sold my last theater, the Hollywood, in Norman, Oklahoma, and was known in the English Department only as "that guy who showed that Marilyn Chambers movie."  Even before it was a cliche, I was politically incorrect. She and I literally first met outside the bathroom at a party given by the other graduate students. It  was 1978, but it might as well have been 1968.  In the front room was a line of people passing around a joint, a line which included several nursing mothers.  Unlike Clinton, everyone was inhaling, even the babes in arms. Waiting outside the bathroom, I looked at her short hair and asked her if she was a lesbian.  She asked me if I was a pornographer. It was love.

A few months later she took me to Nashville to meet her family. I was Southern, but I had never really met Southern Gothic before. My new brother-in-law, Bobby Russell, was the writer of "Honey--Little Green Apples--The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia" and other country hits, as well as a man who worshipped Elvis and kept Nazi memorabilia in all his bathrooms, as well as hanging Nazi flags in the barn where he used to watch his prize race horses procreate. Vicky Lawrence was one of his wives.  She created the characters for Carol Burnett's skit called Mama's Family. I heard those lines long before they were on television. Scary.

I moved to Iowa City to finish my PhD in English, after a nasty year in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Those people still insist that the North lost.  Once in Iowa City, I got mad at a local developer who was tearing down old houses to build apartments. I ran for City Council, lost, got appointed to the Zoning Commission and then ran for office again in 1983, winning with 65% of the vote. A four year term, and then, after adopting kids, I moved to Florida, was miserable, fell in love with the ocean (I do not swim), moved back to Iowa City and ran for Council again in 1993 and won with 55% of the vote.

Right now I work part-time at WaldenBooks, teach three classes at a local community college (history and literature), and my being an elected official of the America's most educated community (according to the US Census Bureau), and home of the Writer's Workshop, will be the acid test of whether irony and politics can survive together.

I am working on my second novel tentatively titled The Education of Nancy Flynn, all about sex, teaching, and politics.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

Turner West saw the land first, but my father was rich and bought most of it. Unlike other stories about land, this is not about farming or crops or man taming the wilderness. The land of this story was one square mile of Florida real estate halfway between Jacksonville and St. Augustine. A mile of beachfront and a mile deep into the scrubby interior, cut along the eastern edge by Highway A1A as it went south toward the Keys.

West saw the land in 1950 and knew it was where he wanted to build his funeral home. His father had been a mortician before him, and his brothers had gone into the same business in Georgia. In 1950, West had been driving down A1A and saw the sun rise over the Atlantic. He told his father, but the elder West was skeptical that a funeral home so far from a major city would ever be successful.

"The future," West had said to his father, "you have to think about the future, even in the funeral business."

West borrowed from his father and brothers and was able to buy two acres on the west side of A1A. The land sloped up and there was a clear view of the ocean, so the West Funeral Home opened its doors in 1951 on Easter morning. My father thought that was a nice touch, especially after he found out that Turner West was an atheist.

West may have been an atheist, but he was also an American Puritan. His work ethic was impeccable, and his funeral business prospered. He had no paid employees. His wife and six children worked with him. He personally trained his three oldest sons in mortuary science--a fact my father particularly admired about Turner West. In his own case, until he was ordered by the Duval County courts to obey the law, my father had educated me and my sister at home. I was twelve years old before I saw the inside of a classroom.

As an atheist, Turner West belonged to five churches and a synagogue. On Sunday morning he was up at dawn and attended services first at the downtown Jacksonville Baptist Church, then at the First Church of Christ at 9:30, followed by the Methodists at 11:00, the Episcopalians at 1:00, a late lunch at home, and finally 5:30 Mass at the Cathedral in St. Augustine. He was in temple on Saturday. He absorbed hours of religion every week, but he never volunteered for any committee work at any of the churches and always insisted that his name not appear in any printed material, except for the regular ad in each church's bulletin. His priest, pastor, and rabbi friends appreciated his humility. I know this because Grace West later explained to me why her father went to church.

"Contacts," she had said. "Everyone wants a friend in a time of need. Daddy is there for them because he has always been there. When the moment comes, Daddy says, they are lost. The living, that is, and they want someone who can understand their grief. Daddy has always been part of their congregation. Who else would they choose?"

My father understood perfectly how West's mind operated. My father, the agnostic.

"Abraham, he is a worthy opponent," my father would say. "He understands the power of symbols, even though he does not realize that he is the ultimate symbol himself."

On his two acres, West built his business and his home. The funeral home was styled after a southern plantation house, white columns and Jeffersonian arches. The West family lived in the back: Turner and his wife in a large bedroom over the garage full of hearses and limousines, their six sons sharing three small rooms on the ground floor next to the embalming room.

For my father, Turner West was an adversary. He was Death personified. My father was Life. If you think my father was crazy, you would find many people who agree with you.My father saw the sun rise over the Atlantic a year after Turner West did, and my father also saw the West Funeral Home and Chapel.

"This is the spot for my Great White Wall," he had told my mother, pointing to a large half-moon-shaped indentation that pushed A1A in a long arcing curve away from the ocean. Another visionary might have seen a perfect spot for a tourist hotel fronting a hard beach that could accommodate pale and flabby easterners and their two-ton cars. My father saw a drive-in theatre. It is a story my mother loved to tell. My father looked at the rising sun, turned 180 degrees, and faced the West Funeral Home. With both arms spread wide, he had said, "I will blot your sun out with a Wall of Life. I will put you in the dark."

"I told your father that he was crazy"--my mother would laugh"--but that I loved him anyway."

It was not really a personal vendetta against Turner West. That came later. But on that first day, my father had simply had a vision about what to do with his money, the ample and undeserved money handed down to him as the last of the Lee family from Winston-Salem.

I give you these details to make sure you do not fall into the easy interpretation that others have. Too many people have told me that the war made my father crazy. But that's not true. My father was disjointed even before going to Korea a week after seeing his land in Florida. My mother told me all the stories about his family, the death of his parents in a murder-suicide, how he found them the summer before his senior year in high school.

"He was different after that, the rest of his family told me," she would say. "Not as quiet, not the shy child they had known before then, just not the same. And he went to Korea knowing that he would not die, that he had to come back here to build his dream. He sent me drawings every month, gave me specific instructions for the contractors, and even made me go to California to buy those giant redwoods. He also told me that you and Louise were going to be our children, described you exactly as you were, even before I saw you." She told me all this, and then she would smile that smile my father must have loved the first time he saw her.

Turner West married his high school sweetheart. They were virgins in both body and heart. I have seen their wedding pictures. Imagine a handsome version of Abraham Lincoln, literally, and you have Turner West. Tall, angular, sad eyes, coal-black hair, long arms, but with a movie-star quality. His wife was short and a bit plump. They had kissed at seventeen, pledged their love at eighteen, married at twenty-two, and deflowered themselves on their Atlanta honeymoon. He had told her that he was going to be a mortician like his father and grandfather, and she had still agreed to be his wife.

Her name was Grace, and she was a natural consoler. It was she who had early contact with the next of kin in those brutal first moments on the phone when the living start the dead on their last journey. West could never believe his luck in finding her. She was his wife, lover, mother, friend, and partner. In the first ten years of marriage, they had their six sons. By the time the West Funeral Home was opened, the three oldest were trained to be their father's assistants, and the younger three were destined for the same career. The youngest was old enough to drive one of the limousines in the daily processions that began under Turner West's bedroom.

On the day two barges landed on the beach--two barges each supporting one end of the first of those hundred-foot redwoods that had been shipped from California down the Pacific coast, through the Panama Canal, up past Cuba to float offshore of the land my father had bought--on that day, Turner West's wife died.

They had been foolish, they told themselves. She was too old to have another child. It had not been planned. It could have been terminated. Even in those unenlightened days, there were ways. But then they had looked at each other and knew that things would be all right.

In the waiting room, however, Turner West had been told there was something wrong, and his long legs had outraced the doctor back to the delivery room. His wife was dead, but his daughter was alive.
When the nurse asked what her name was, West had thought she meant his wife. "Grace. Her name is Grace," he had said, and that was the name they put on the birth certificate.

If you had asked Turner West what he remembered about the next three months he could not tell you, because he remembered nothing. Then, sitting in his bedroom one dark morning, he heard a baby cry. Grace was in a crib in the room in which she had been conceived, in the room where she was to sleep in a bed next to her father's bed for the next five years. Turner West had rocked his daughter back to sleep, and then he walked to the front of his funeral home to look out the window. At that particular moment he saw the Flamingo Drive-In Theatre blocking his view of the morning sun.

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Interviews & Essays

On Wednesday, September 10th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Larry Baker to discuss THE FLAMINGO RISING.


Moderator: Welcome to the Live Events Auditorium! We're proud to present Larry Baker, author of THE FLAMINGO RISING, in the premiere event of our First Fiction Series. Mr. Baker joins us via phone. Welcome, Mr. Baker!

Larry Baker: Thank you. I'm pleased to be here and excited to have this opportunity.


Mary Westport from Connecticut: Congratulations on the success of your first book! I haven't read it yet, but I was just wondering if you could tell me what made you write about a drive-in theater? They are rich with American heritage and have been recently revived in the media.

Larry Baker: Well, Mary, I ran drive-ins for 12 years and knew I would put some of those experiences into print -- it just took me 20 years to do it.


Joan Daily from Arizona: Hi, Mr. Baker. Please realize that all first-time writers are a success story for aspiring writers. Would you mind telling us how you got published?

Larry Baker: Well, I got lucky. I finished the book a couple of years ago, had friends read it, and managed to get a couple of publishers to read it, with no success. Then I got an agent named Matt Sobel to read it -- he read the first 50 pages, asked for the whole manuscript, and made one phone call to Sonny Mehta at Knopf, and three weeks later, Matt called me at home and told me to quit my day job. There are better writers who never get published and good books that never get read, so I keep telling people that I'm just incredibly lucky.


Jonathan from La Jolla: Hello, Larry Baker! I've read the information on this site about your book. In your own words, what is FLAMINGO RISING about?

Larry Baker: The book is literally about the world's largest drive-in movie theater, which sits on the beach in Florida with a funeral home down the road and two men who don't like each other but whose children fall in love. That's the story -- the book is really about parents and children and why we turn out the way we do.


Mary T. from Sandale, CA: Did you take any fiction-writing courses? Have you been writing all your life? Or is this your first foray into fiction?

Larry Baker: I took one fiction-writing course in college, but I've been writing since I was in high school. In high school I was president of my senior class and president of the literary club -- so now I'm in politics and writing and haven't done anything different in 20 years.


Kit from Clearwater, FL: How have new communication technologies (Internet, etc.) impacted your work?

Larry Baker: The only thing that really had an impact on my work was learning the difference between a word processor and a typewriter -- which speeded the whole process up. If you notice, my email address is on the cover of the book, and since then I've been getting responses from people around the country.


James Cannon from Delaware: What's your own experience with drive-ins?

Larry Baker: I used to run drive-ins in Oklahoma -- in fact, I ran the country's largest drive-in. A lot of the book comes out of that experience, I just changed the characters.


Porter from Wisconsin University: Does your own family bear any resemblance to the Lees? If this isn't autobiographical, you have a tremendous imagination! Congrats on a spectacular first fiction!

Larry Baker: No, I keep telling my friends, Don't interpret too much. The father in the book is very theatrical, and that's a little like me, but the wife and children -- that's a different story.


James from Baltimore: To me, Florida is the most postmodern state. Nothing is what it seems -- even the palm trees are imported. Why did you decide to set your book in the Sunshine State?

Larry Baker: Simple reason: When I write, I literally visualize some place from my past as a setting, and I lived three years in St. Augustine. It was just easier to put the book in a location that was geographically familiar.


Sal from Portland: I read in your bio that you teach history. Does your interest in history arise in your new novel? Did you undertake much research in preparation for this project? I have not yet read FLAMINGO RISING, but it seems like it is the hottest of the new fiction, so I will be reading it soon! Congratulations.

Larry Baker: Thanks for that endorsement! No research, because it comes from experience. The book is not historical, but there's an important theme about how you remember the past. History, as they say, is written by the winners, so what do you do with your personal history, what do you choose to remember? That is what the narrator is doing in this book.


Barry Wimbush from Margate, FL: The name of your main character, Abraham Isaac Lee, has obvious religious connotations. Was that intentional? I haven't read FLAMINGO RISING yet -- does religion play a role in your novel?

Larry Baker: Absolutely intentional. In fact, one of the things that has been missed in reviews is that beneath this humorous surface is a very serious story about faith in God. The narrator is surrounded by free adults who represent sorts of religious options. His father is an agnostic, his mother is a devout Christian, and the funeral-home owner is a devout atheist. These adults pull at the narrator. The narrator has to deal with both his father and himself as a father, so he is both father and son. By the end of the book the narrator has to chose one of those directions for his life, but most critics have seen the humor so far. Maybe it's the funniest religious book published in the last decade. In fact, my original audience was the people who sat around me every Sunday in mass. My problem as a writer is that I can't help being funny.


John R. from Hinsdale, IL: Did you attempt to have any other works published before FLAMINGO RISING was published? Congratulations on your first work!

Larry Baker: I've had short stories published regularly in literary reviews for 20 years. I have a novel that was written about ten years ago that is sitting on a shelf and probably deserves to stay there.


Jeff from Davenport, IA: Congrats on your novel! Prior to, or as a result of, running a drive-in theater -- are you a movie buff at all?

Larry Baker: Oh, one of the great pleasures of the business was that you could watch movies over and over again. Robin and Marian and I used to watch six times a day six days a week. Doing that, you get to study how things are put together. It had some influence on the style of this book, because it's very visual. Also, because it is set in a drive-in, there are always references to movies that are being shown: "The Loved One," "The Green Beret" -- it's like movie history.


Paul from aol: Hello, Mr. Baker. Do you think working in a bookstore was a valuable experience in terms of writing FLAMINGO RISING? Are you still working there?

Larry Baker: Actually, that will be a good experience for the next book. I wrote this one before I worked there. But working in a bookstore gave me a real sense about who buys books and what they talk about when they buy them. And yes, I do plan on working there for the Christmas rush -- I promised the store manager I would help out.


Guy from Brooklyn Heights: Did you have an inspiration for the character of Turner West? He is a terrific character!

Larry Baker: No. I needed a funeral home director. The interesting thing is where the name comes from. In Cedar Rapids there is a funeral home called Turner, but there are two locations: Turner East and Turner West. I used to drive by and think, What a great name for a funeral director.


Ron Goldsmith from Westchester: Is Hubert Lee of any relation to Robert E. Lee?

Larry Baker: That's what I say in the book, but it's not true.


Jeffrey from San Francisco: Living in Iowa City, you must be familiar with the Iowa Writer's Conference. Are you involved in it at all?

Larry Baker: No, I'm not. That was the first question the publisher asked. I have a Ph.D. in English, but it's from the English department.


Bruno from aol: Why the fascination with fireworks? Do they at all represent some pent-up desires, emotions...?

Larry Baker: No. What they represent -- I'm trying not to give it all away, but the first line is, "My name is Abraham Isaac Lee, I am my father's son, this is a story about Land and Love and a Great Fire that consumed all my father's dreams." The fireworks are responsible for the great fire.


Ian Foss from sisna.com: Is there a real Flamingo Rising in the world somewhere, or did you make up the name?

Larry Baker: No, it's totally made-up. There's a Cowboy Marquee in Oklahoma City, and I'm sure that there's a Flamingo Marquee somewhere. The original title was ABRAHAM'S VOICE, and those who have read the book know that is the name of the first and last chapters. The agent changed the name, sold the book, and then told me -- which was fine with me. He just liked Flamingo Rising.


Barbara Wright from Hartford: Abe's obsession with Grace is so real -- you write so wonderfully about such a young experience. Was it difficult to write from that perspective?

Larry Baker: No, because I never thought of Abe as young. I always thought of an adult remembering himself as a boy. Remember, this is the young Abraham being described by the old. You have to imagine yourself with someone else trying to re-create for them what you were like 20 years ago. This is something we all do sooner or later.


Rory from Florida: Larry, two more questions: 1) When you begin your writing sessions, how do you begin them? Do you do a writing exercise? How do you start? 2) What was your favorite part of the book to write?

Larry Baker: Did you read the book? I try to get 20 hours of writing a week on a very regular basis, like Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 8am to 3pm. I have to be absolutely alone in the house, not answer the phone, drink a couple cups of coffee, and I still usually end up staring at a blank screen for the first hour. I always reread what I wrote in the last session. And I revise as I go along. In other words, I don't write five pages, put it away, revise them; I'll write a sentence, work on it, get a few sentences, see how the paragraph reads. On a good day, I get about five pages that I'm happy with, but if I did that every week, I could get a book in eight to ten months. The most interesting thing about this book is that I submitted a 450-page manuscript that is now a 309-page book. And as much as I thought I had written a good book, my editor, Sonny Mehta, made it better. I say that in the acknowledgment of the book, but it doesn't convey the work he put into it, helping me eliminate so many unnecessary words, sentences. In fact, the version he bought had a major character that is not in the version he published -- and that's why he's a great editor.


Andrea Charles from Princeton, NJ: What kind of expectations did you have for your first novel? The review in The New Yorker was glowing! Could you ever have guessed, or did you feel like you had your finger on the pulse of America while you were writing?

Larry Baker: Sometimes I wasn't sure I had a pulse. I never expected this kind of success. My highest hope was that I could first get it published, maybe 10,000 copies first edition, get some good reviews, sell enough copies to keep the publisher interested in my second book, and slowly build up a readership. My biggest fantasy was that perhaps the book would get some kind of award -- I would have been happy with "the best first novel from Iowa City resident over 40 with two children." But Matt Sobel thought it had potential, and he gave it to Sonny Mehta, who said it would be a bestseller as soon as he read it. He's smarter than I when it comes to having a finger on the pulse of American readers. I thought The New Yorker was another world that I was a spectator to, so I haven't adjusted to being in The New Yorker, especially being reviewed by a man whose books I am an avid fan of, Henry Louis Gates Jr.


Lena from Austin: I am a writing student, and I really like as much of FLAMINGO RISING as I've read so far. Do you have any strong literary influences? If so, do you think they are pronounced in your own fiction?

Larry Baker: Absolutely. They are the kind of influences that English teachers love but no one else cares about. Though it is not fashionable, I think the people who have had the most influence on me are dead writers: Shakespeare, Melville, Hawthorne, and Flannery O'Connor, as far as theme and style go. Some may compare me to contemporary writers, and I'm flattered by the comparisons, but the influences come from way back. One of the things I try to do in this book is write a long passage that the reader has to slow down to read. There is a scene where Abe describes what he sees in the ocean -- I worked all day on that -- or when he walks into a concession stand and describes for a whole page a girl's stomach. You laugh for 280 pages and then you cry for 20. There are passages in Melville that are stunning -- that is my goal, a long reach, but I try to write as powerfully as he did and as ironically as Flannery O'Connor. By the end of the book, hopefully, the reader will come to the great fire and feel the heat of the fire coming off the page as something burns to the ground.


Carlos from Seattle: Hello, Mr. Baker! What are you working on now? When will your next book come out?

Larry Baker: A completely different book. My agent suggested a sequel, but my editor said he would never publish a sequel. In the end, a major character disappears, but you know she's out there somewhere. I'm working on a story about a 38-year-old widow whose first job is offered to her on her 38th birthday on the day she buries her mother. The job is to replace her mother as a teacher in the high school she attended. So she's starting over to replace her mother, and the man who offers her the job used to be her high school teacher who she was in love with, but she was in love with then. Now he's 48 and she's 38, and she thinks that there's a chance she could recapture that. But there are all sort of complications: a basketball coach who sleeps with everything who moves, the coach's mother, etc. It's a comedy, and I hope to have the same effect at the end of the book that I had in this one. So if you remember how hormone-driven your adolescence was and what it's like to go to high school, you'll probably like this next book. It's tentatively titled THE EDUCATION OF NANCY FLYNN and should be finished by the fall of '98.


Moderator: Thanks for taking the time to field our questions, Larry Baker. We wish you continued success with FLAMINGO RISING. Any final words of advice for aspiring writers?

Larry Baker: What I have said all along: Lead an interesting life, write a book, throw it away, write another book about what you know, get a good agent, never forget that there are better writers than you who never see themselves in print and never write sequels. I was glad to have a chance to talk to you all, I hope you like the book. If you do, buy two for your friends.


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Reading Group Guide

1.         Abraham's father lost his faith in God at age seventeen when his parents died. Have you ever had your faith in God seriously challenged because of a personal tragedy? If so, how do you maintain that faith in the face of such a challenge?

2.         How would you describe Hubert Lee's motivation for building his drive-in theater?

3.         The narrator describes the first time he began to understand his father better and see him as a multidimensional individual. Describe that turning point in your own life.

4.         Why is Louise so rebellious and secretive? Is it simply because of her age and stage in life or is there something deeper at work?

5.         Larry Baker's first draft of this story used the father as the narrator but the story didn't work; Baker put it aside for ten years before finally figuring out he needed the son, Abraham, as the narrator. Why do you think this story failed with the father as narrator? What would have been missing if Hubert had remained the narrator? What is gained by having Abraham tell the story instead of his dad?

6.         Do you see any similarities between The Flamingo Rising's main character, Hubert Lee, and Captain Ahab, the central character from the Melville classic Moby Dick? Are there other similarities beyond these two characters or these two novels?

7.         What aspects of Abraham Isaac's personality come from his mother? What aspects come from his father? Do you think it is nurture or nature that dictates the development of our children?

8.         North Florida, in the 1960s, simmered with racial, class, and economic tensions that receive little attention in this book. Baker has said he wanted to underscore the fact that the Flamingo is protected from the outside world. Why does the author want to create this protected environment?

9.         One of the last movies shown at the Flamingo Drive-In is The Green Berets. Afterward, people start asking Abraham and Louise if they're from Vietnam. Does this mean the outside world is starting to encroach on the Flamingo? Is the author's message simply "you can't protect your children forever"?

10.         Why is Hubert unable to accept the fact that his wife has been faithful to him? Do you think Hubert is crazy? If so, why does Edna marry him? Does this make her crazy as well?

11.         Abraham--an adopted child--talks about being asked, in school, who his real parents are. He says, "I know that it is politically correct today to differentiate between biological and adoptive parents. Even to this day, however, my father rejects that distinction." Do you think there should be a distinction between biological and adoptive parents? Should adopted kids be told they're adopted? If your answer is yes, at what age should they be told? Hubert Lee says biology has nothing to do with parenthood. Do you agree?

12.         In describing Louise, Abraham says, "From that first day of class until her graduation, Louise slowly, but inexorably, separated herself from my father's vision of our future." Why did Louise feel the need to separate herself in this way?

13.         Why do you think Hubert agrees to honor Grace's request not to show The Loved One?

14.         What do you think of the character Alice Kite? Why does she take such an interest in Abraham's sexual development?

15.         Abraham says, "The Sunday after the Fourth [of July] of 1967 was one of those pivotal days in my life, and I was not paying attention. I should have seen the distant look on my father's face, seen the tightness around my mother's eyes, heard the rip in the fabric they had wrapped around themselves." To what is Abraham referring? Why was the Sunday after the Fourth of July so pivotal for him?

16.         Why do you think Abraham has set up a private gallery? What purpose does it serve for him? Why does he keep it secret from his family?

17.         Baker has two chapters--one of them titled "My First Twelve Pictures" and the other "Six Pictures Taken 7/4/68, Before the Box Office Opened"--in which Abraham describes photographs that he's taken. Why do you think Baker has inserted these chapters? Why is it important to give us Abraham's description of these photographs? What do the pictures represent?

18.         Why do you think the family decides to hold on to the dog, Frank, despite the fact that he attacked Louise and almost killed her?

19.         Why does Hubert decide to burn down the Flamingo? And why does Abraham leave Frank in the tower to burn to death? Of that decision, Abraham says, "Of all the people there, gaping at me, only Alice understood. I think she did." What is it that Alice understands?

20.         How does The Flamingo Rising compare to other "coming-of-age" stories that you've read?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 19, 2013

    I thoroughly enjoyed The Flamingo Rising from beginning to end a

    I thoroughly enjoyed The Flamingo Rising from beginning to end and recommend it to anyone who wants to get lost in a beautifully written and compelling book. I had to keep reminding myself that this was a work of fiction and Abe wasn’t a real person sitting in my living room telling me about his teenage years.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 22, 2001

    Fireworks Aplenty in This Feisty Coming-of-Age Story

    In a sense 'The Flamingo Rising' is so good it's bad. Huh? Well, it's over-engineered. Baker is too good at his craft; too many times he foreshadows events multiple times (through his teenage persona's eyes, through his first-person-narrator adult eyes, by means of symbolism, and other devices such as irony, say), when once would have been enough. Nonetheless, the book was a good read. It's about a 1960's nuclear family who operate a massive drive-in theater along Florida's Atlantic coast south of Jacksonville. The cast of characters grows to include a Scatman Crothers-type black handyman (only he's very short); a part terrier/part wiener dog who becomes unforgiveably vicious; and a wisecracking 'Flo' type who intervenes in the author's personal life . . .hm, I'd better leave that part to you readers. Like John Grisham, the author has managed to write this novel without cuss words. He isn't a prude about it; in fact he's rather humorous. Most of the goings-on concern the interplay between the lurid but fun cinema and the staid but necessary funeral chapel next door, especially the Romeo-and-Juliet substory of the narrator and his girl. The prose style hit the right buttons: it was neither too colloquial nor too writer's workshop, if you know what I mean. Next time I hope he'll have a little more faith in his considerable craft, in which case there just might be a blockbuster in the offing.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2000

    Excellent is not good enough to describe this book

    I bought this book having never heard of it and I'm so glad I went out on a limb and bought it. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry, and it makes you feel like these characters are your next door neighbors that you know so well. I recommend this book to teenagers and adults.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 1, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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