A good page-turner works a bit like an earworm, a memorable sliver of melody that sneaks into your brain and refuses to leave. You steal a few minutes to read the novel on morning and evening commutes; it blots out the bustle and din of the train or bus, and the twists and turns of the plot stay in your head all day. You read a few more pages as you’re falling asleep and the characters invade your dreams, their voices resounding in your ears.
But rarely does a page-turner actually use an earworm—and a perfectly chosen one at that—to wedge its way into your thoughts and stake its claim. And even more rarely does it do so at precisely the moment the author decides to teach you something.
“You don’t remember me, but I remember you,” croons a heartsick voice from the answering machine of drug smuggler-turned-pharmaceutical company executive James Teach in Sterling Watson’s Suitcase City. The messages repeat every hour on the hour as Teach’s old partner in crime, Bloodworth Naylor, leaves ominous messages from a crackling 45 RPM record, cranking up the heat in his slow-burning scheme to unsettle his former accomplice and destroy his life.
Those haunting words—from Little Anthony and the Imperials’ 1958 doo-wop hit “Tears on My Pillow”—reverberate throughout Sterling Watson’s irresistible earworm of a novel. Suitcase City unfurls a captivating story of murder, revenge, self-destruction and self-preservation set in Tampa, Fla., at the intersection of two alarmingly different Tampas: the wealthy, overwhelmingly white Terra Ceia (a name shared by both a neighborhood and a country club); and the seedy, crime-ridden, predominantly non-white Suitcase City.
At the center of Suitcase City stands James Teach, a man whose ability to find disaster is eclipsed only by his talent for digging out of it. We first meet Teach, a former Florida Gators star quarterback, in 1978 in his hometown of Cedar Key, Fla., where he has returned to little fanfare after a quick and ugly flameout in the NFL. He finds work as a bartender and soon puts his skills as a boat pilot and his intimate knowledge of the coastal waterways to work smuggling marijuana from ship to shore. Teach delivers the contraband to Naylor, who brought him into the business, and splits the take with him 50-50. On each late-night run he collects the shipment from three Guatemalan gangsters. One night, after he watches the Guatemalans shoot and kill a crab-poaching local drunk who observes their clandestine operation, Teach realizes that the gangsters’ “no surviving witnesses” policy extends to him. He pre-emptively kills the three of them, disposes of the bodies, buries his money and makes his getaway.
We next encounter Teach 19 years later. He’s a successful businessman, recreational golfer, widower, protective father of a smart and talented teenage girl, and aging former football star on a barstool regaling an old Gators fan with tales of gridiron glory. That same afternoon, Teach treads into legal hot water by decking a black teenager who threatens to rob him in a bar bathroom.
Later, Teach becomes a suspect in the grisly murder of Thalia Speaks, a crack-addicted black prostitute with whom he’d once had an illicit affair (during better days for both). Gradually, he comes to suspect that his long-forgotten one-time partner, Blood Naylor (now a furniture salesman, drug dealer and pimp), has hatched a plot to destroy him.
Suitcase City works from inside the heads of several fine and complex characters, all of them haunted by various ugly pasts. These include not just the self-preserving, belatedly well-meaning Teach and the vengeful, rudderless, self-loathing Naylor, but also the cautious, level-headed police detective Aimes and the desperate, ruthless investigative reporter Marlie Turkle. We also meet Teach’s brilliant, gifted, ever-forgiving daughter, who at times seems almost too good (and too good at advancing the plot) to be true.
Amidst all this highly charged, high-body-count drama, Watson weaves some Walter Mosley-esque sermonizing on race into Suitcase City’s pulsing pages without ever sacrificing forceful storytelling at the altar of weighty moralizing. Watson’s book carries a message about the odd overlapping of worlds where people of color occupy the background of the picture while whites are the picture. His narrative rarely slows down except briefly to ponder how quickly and easily those in the background recede into invisibility, unseen and forgotten by those in the foreground.
These colliding worlds include not just Terra Ceia and Suitcase City in Tampa in the 1990s, but also, 20 years earlier, the neighboring communities of mostly white Cedar Key and mostly black Rosewood. Rosewood, fans of John Singleton’s 1997 film of the same name will remember, briefly flourished as a self-sufficient black community before a 1923 massacre that most Cedar Key residents probably assumed wiped it off the map.
No timeless treatise on double-consciousness and invisibility, to be sure, Suitcase City bears a closer resemblance to Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge than to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, with its Casterbridge-like structure and meditation on the inescapability of a sordid past. As a novelist reflecting on the personal toll taken by interracial relationships against a backdrop of social inequality, Watson comes closer to Mosley’s straight-shooting “sit down and let me teach you about racism” approach than, say, the questing high tragedy of James Baldwin’s Another Country. (In fact, Suitcase City and Mosley’s searing Fortunate Son nearly qualify as the sort of characters-as-symbols “protest novels” that Baldwin often derided; at one point, two of Watson’s characters actually debate what broad-stroke racial symbols they might unfairly be used to signify in print and in court.)
Much like Mosley, Watson makes his point about the intractability of modern de facto segregration without derailing his fast-moving story. Consider the advice Thalia Speaks’s grandmother says she gave her granddaughter when she took up with Teach: “I told her lots of little black girls loved white mens, and lots of them got babies from them… But you go over to the white side of town and see how many them little black girls is living with them white mens in them nice houses. You go look, and you come back and tell me about it.”
With its airtight atmosphere of impending, life-sinking doom, and taut language evoking palpable Gulf Coast Florida seediness, Suitcase City duly takes its place alongside the best works of former Floridian Pete Dexter, and the brilliant Tampa novels of Dennis Lehane, Live By Night and World Gone By. If it manages to get in your head like an otherworldly falsetto voice crying into your answering machine, expect it to stay there for a while.
Steve Nathans-Kelly is a writer and editor based in Ithaca, New York.