WHAT IS FLORIDA? As one of the original 11 states in the Confederacy, the North feels distinctly Southern but the South swings more to the tropical. Transplants, escapees from other parts, are everywhere, as are the strip malls in all their bland ubiquity. Florida’s closest companion is California, at least Walt Disney thought so, with its oranges and Spanish Missions and gentle coastline, but Florida has fewer natural resources around which to organize much industry. Even the ground, comprised of flaky limestone, is always threatening to sink in on itself. Where California has Hollywood glamour and New Age mysticism, Florida has kitsch. While people go to Hollywood to become movie stars, they go to Tampa to misbehave on reality TV. Florida, according to historian Gary Mormino, has usurped California as the “capital of weirdness.”
Sarah Gerard’s memoir-in-essays Sunshine State is the newest book to dissect the corrupted paradise that is Florida. Gerard is from Tampa Bay — where this critic also grew up — and her book perfectly captures the idiosyncrasies of the Gulf Coast. The collection’s titular essay scrutinizes the saga of a seabird sanctuary driven into the ground by an eccentric Howard Hughes type. “I remember it being a place of encounters — with strange species, with wild instincts,” she recalls of the sanctuary, but she might as well be writing about the state itself. Sunshine State features the obligatory cast of Florida characters — millionaires, addicts, grandparents, true believers, sexual predators, and exotic wildlife — but the carnival is softened by Gerard’s nostalgic gaze.
The collection is part reportage, part millennial love letter to lost youth, a native daughter’s attempt to sharpen her understanding of self against the whetstone of history and society. In these essays, the writer excavates photographs, old documents, diaries, and correspondences, to take inventory of the past that formed her. John Rothschild once wrote that “Florida is spiritually unclaimed. On this higher level, it does not seem to exist.” In it, he found “no hero of history around which the population can rally,” which he attributed to “the inevitable result of the invention of a past by the public relations departments.” The paradox of the Florida memoir is the paradox of memory itself in a state that’s always paving over whatever past hasn’t been wiped away by the last hurricane, but over and over we find Gerard combing through the remains. “This is the before time,” she writes in “BFF,” the electric first essay in the collection, before listing the series of lies the two best friends once told each other — one who would stay in Florida and become a stripper, the other a writer in New York.
What slowly emerges throughout the course of Gerard’s searching is a clear-eyed dismantling of the American dream: the idea that we are the individual architects of our fates, each with the power to will for ourselves the lives we want, the abundance we desire — wealth we trust will lead to true happiness. In “Going Diamond,” Gerard describes her parents’ brief seduction by the Amway (short for The “American Way”) pyramid scheme, and its promises of luxury through just a little hard work. “Dreambuilding is Amway’s profit engine,” she claims. A product of white suburbia (only child, dance lessons, many trips to the mall), Gerard writes: “A house with four bedrooms came to seem normal; I wanted five. I wanted a library. I wanted a hot tub. I wanted a spiral staircase with a wrought iron banister, and a playroom, and a whirlpool bathtub, and a room just for practicing ballet, and a fitness center, and a poolside bar.”
Gerard has a keen ear for absurdist logic, the contortions of language (the phrase “alternative fact” comes to mind) through which the dreamer rebuffs reality. Sunshine State is full of such dreamers: Christian Scientists who would wish away cancerous tumors, realtors showing homes with all the festive vacuity their profession requires. They are tragic-comic characters who embody the state’s combination of beauty, sadness, hope, and greed. In “Going Diamond,” Gerard recounts a conversation with a real estate agent extolling the gated community’s “natural bayou features.”
“Tom Fazio is the golf course designer,” says Dale. “He was pretty green and environmentally friendly, kind of before it was all really cool, and that’s what he does, is he builds the course around the natural landscape without changing it.”
“Doesn’t the golf course itself change it?” I say.
“Does the course change the landscape?” says Dale.
“Yeah, doesn’t the golf course itself change the landscape?” I say.
“It does, but I think he tries not to change the natural landscape, but to design the course around it,” says Dale. “Like, all these holes going right next to the Bayou Crossing Waterway. It’s … it’s … it’s part of it.”
We drive on.
In other essays, we see the various ways the dream evaporates, the illusions thinned. “The Mayor of Williams Park” is a piece about Florida’s treatment of its homeless, those outside the middle-class fantasy. In “Mother-Father-God,” Gerard probes her parents’ belief in New Thought, an offshoot of Christian Science, and what its emphasis on wrong thinking means for the victims of domestic violence her mother, herself a survivor, made a career of helping. “Sunshine State,” investigates the corruption, the layers of competing truths, in the despoiled seabird sanctuary. Founded by Ralph Heath, the one-time husband of the Anheuser-Busch heiress — a man deranged by wealth — the sanctuary is an example of how unchecked desires can turn rancid. When Gerard asks Ralph about the charges of embezzlement, he can only repeat, “We were never able to verify that account.”
Within the past decade, the genre of nonfiction has become a theater to stage the culture’s own anxieties around verification. For her part, Gerard is careful to cite her sources. A memoirist with a reporter’s methods, she is assiduous in her attempts to hound out the truth, however slippery, from its hideouts. The essay “Sunshine State” begins with the following disclaimer: “Characters in the following story are presenting their own versions of events and do not necessarily reflect the truth, which we may never know.” She takes pains to pad the personal with the authority of fact, as if to inoculate against any charges of self-indulgence. But at times the research is not fully digested, characters are introduced and lost in the muddle, and the urgency of the story — its true pathos — is buried in bureaucratic detail.
Those looking for a larger conclusion about Florida, and what it all means, will be disappointed, but the essays in the collection do gesture toward some bleak realities. Didion’s jittery deployment of ’60s California — symbol of a national breakdown — has yet to be done for Florida in the Age of Trump. Because Florida, as some have suggested, is a microcosm of larger ruptures. Florida is the state of Elián González, Terri Schiavo, and Trayvon Martin. Florida was the first state to adopt stand-your-ground laws, as well as the birthplace of the National Enquirer. Florida was the site of the 2000 election scandal and the Pulse nightclub massacre. It leads the country in identity theft and tax fraud, has one plastic surgeon for every 39 residents, and no state income tax. While the rest of the country would rather dismiss deregulated Florida as a laughable aberration, all signs point to it as the ultimate manifestation of what is in store. It is a dystopia best visualized by Gerard’s description of the Windsor country club — its wetlands drained, residents monied and fortressed, streets purged of danger, real or perceived — where the rich play as the rest of the planet floods:
There’s no such thing as class in Windsor — everyone is as rich as everybody else. In Windsor, Rich DeVos can catch some rays in peace. No one bothers him about “ethical this” and “fraudulent that.” He plays golf all day. He never has to mow the lawn or wait at a traffic light.
In Windsor, Rich is surrounded by civilized people. There are no termites. The pool is always eighty degrees. The beach is walking distance. There are no sharks in the water, even at night. Birds never shit on his car in Windsor. There are no loud tourists in Windsor. There’s no media. There’s plenty of shade. There are no alligators.
The people are all Rich’s friends in Windsor. People always agree with him here. In Windsor, there is only small talk. Everyone donates to the charities of Rich’s choosing. He gets a hole in one every day.
In 2016, the Oxford Dictionary elected “post-truth” the word of the year, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” We have what could be called the first Florida presidency: an ongoing theater of the absurd in which the true seat of government is not Washington but Mar-a-Lago, held by not an evil man, necessarily, so much as the self-tanned brand of volatile narcissist — a Florida Man, to be sure — that history has proved most dangerous to people everywhere. If it was once golden California that embodied all the best and worst of the country’s dreams, perhaps now Florida — oneiric, savage, tabloidish Florida — is the spiritual center of the United States.