The Dark Soul of the Sunshine State

Why Florida is the way it is

illustration of car driving toward sunset
Marta Monteiro

Florida! Surreal state, plastic state, state of swamp and glitz, state as object of the lust and ridicule of the other 49, state dangling off the body of the continent like—well!—a hanging chad. Seek to encapsulate Florida in a single narrative, and you’ll find yourself thwarted. What is normal in the backwoods of the panhandle or on the prairies of north-central Florida is ludicrously alien in Miami Beach. Even the stories that have lured the majority of Floridians to this place are largely empty promises, gusts of devilishly hot and humid air. Because most of us have come from elsewhere, including me, and because the state is a mishmash of unintegrated and wildly different peoples and cities, we have no deep, shared mythologies. We find our motley self-portrait composed of stories that shift like sand underfoot, without a single solid base to keep us standing (unless we count the inane violence of college football, which, oh please, let’s not).

To try to understand this most incomprehensible state, we need varied and probing narratives, ones that change as Florida changes and are told by people who love the state too deeply to refrain from blistering criticism. Into this role steps the native South Floridian memoirist Kent Russell with his sharp, brilliant, mean, and exasperating hybrid book, In the Land of Good Living. By exasperating, I mean that I’ve never read an account of our gorgeous and messed-up state that is a more appropriate match of form and function. Russell’s book is a braid of diverse strands that shouldn’t work together and yet do.

The conceit of his memoir is a road trip taken with two of his friends as they walk more than 1,000 miles from the northwest corner of the panhandle south to Miami’s Coconut Grove, from late August to December of 2016. They were inspired by former Governor “Walkin’ Lawton” Chiles, who launched his national political career in 1970 with a “walking-talking and listening campaign.” Their intention is “elegiac,” to assemble “the last, most comprehensive postcards from Florida as we know her. Before she takes the waters”—in other words, before climate change destroys many parts of the state.

The three men are trying to make a film, and because their trek takes place during the run-up to and weeks after the 2016 presidential election, they discover that swing-state Florida is the best place in the country in which to trace America’s political divisions. The first-person speaker among the three (anti?)heroes is our author, Kent, a “paunchy nebbish,” a Columbia University adjunct instructor with a mullet grown for the trip, who is most eloquent when he is either at his bitterest or most intoxicated by booze or drugs. His friends are Noah, a former marine turned client investigator at JPMorgan Chase, who is given the best punch lines in the book, and Glenn, the cameraman, a “blond, blue-eyed, dad-bodied” Canadian whose optimism is slowly infected by the reality of Florida until he becomes, by the end of the journey, hilariously bleak.

The spirit of Don Quixote presides over this buddy-trip plotline. Florida is so deeply quixotic that it probably does require three separate Sancho Panzas to refract its delusions. There are even multiple versions of Rocinante, Quixote’s placid, bony horse: first an Office Depot cart with a mean torque, christened “Rolling Thunder,” which carries the film gear and Kent’s backpack; then a Victorian-esque baby carriage called “Rock-a-bye Thunder”; then a jogging stroller called “Jog-a-bye Thunder.” Like Sancho Panza, our three errant philosophers are sometimes reluctant, sometimes avid participants in their adventures. They go out on a shrimping boat with Trump supporters. Homeless people and alligators beset the friends’ tents in the night. At one point, they accidentally pawn their equipment for cocaine. They have multiple guns pointed at them on their journey, the first by a woman who thinks they’ve got “some IED-looking thing” in their cart. Their feet disintegrate over the many miles. They get trashed on White Russians during a false-alarm hurricane, and get even more trashed at Epcot with an aspiring Jesus who unofficially performs miracles at the Holy Land Experience theme park. They get lap dances in Tampa. They devolve into fisticuffs among themselves like the overgrown, overprivileged, overeducated white boys they are.

Because the book is about the film that the men are making, many of the scenes between the buddies are written as though they are in a screenplay; these parts are funny and charming and, perhaps weirdly in a nonfiction book, have the distinctive tang of fiction. Or perhaps this is appropriate: As Russell says in a closing author’s note, “This book is about Florida. To write a 100 percent factual book about Florida would be like writing an on-the-level guide to fraud … The preceding is as Florida as can be: the real story built upon the true story.” Throughout, Russell gives us the accepted story of Florida, then the actual—far darker—story.

That old canard about Ponce de León finding Florida while looking for the fountain of youth? It’s a lie; de León stumbled upon the place in 1513 when looking for a better one, and, years later, when he tried to colonize the area for the Spanish, he was killed by the Calusa with an arrow dipped in poisonous manchineel sap. Russell excels at such delightful nutshell histories, many of which involve a measure of both peril and con-artistry. The backstories of air-conditioning, hurricanes, orange cultivation, Walt Disney, and Miami, in Russell’s telling, all feature some element of wildly ambitious delusion and/or a hair’s-breadth escape from disaster.

Russell is at his best when he offers cultural commentary, dropping his gonzo persona and becoming wickedly insightful. He looks hard at the libertarian funk found everywhere in Florida, which can confound residents and outsiders alike. Russell quotes the historian Gary Mormino’s observation that “frontier values—fierce individualism, gun violence, a weak state government, and rapacious attitudes toward the environment—defined and continue to define Florida.” This is true even of the liberal Baby Boomers who keep flocking to the state, and who pride themselves on their nonconformity and resistance to authority, which they see as progressive values. But their stance in fact converges with an aggressive conservatism, marked by its attack-dog insistence on elevating the rights of individuals to do whatever the hell they want, society at large and the environment be damned. In Florida, Russell observes, “liberty” is equated with “license,” in contrast to more noble past visions of liberty as “not the absence of constraint, but the exercise of self-limitation.”

This unrestrained mentality pervades retirement utopias like the Villages, where 66,000-plus “active adults” over the age of 55 live in a “plastic antiplace” that they don’t really have to care about. Because their hearts are back where they’re from—Cincinnati or Minneapolis or Albany—they are unwilling to invest in Florida schools and roads and public services; the state is just a place to let a little sun shine down on their heads, to play a few rounds of golf while they’re awaiting death’s sickle. Their particular brand of confused libertarianism intermingles with the more common flavor Russell and his friends encounter on their trip. Nearly everywhere they go, they find Trump supporters (most devastating, even a climate scientist they meet is a Trump apologist). He writes, sympathetically, that these people belong to

a class that has been told time and again that they are exceptionally free. Free to fashion their social and economic identities howsoever they choose. Free to master their fates and captain their souls. Yet everywhere they turn, these individuals are stymied by political and financial powers from whose vantage they appear to be as abstract and insignificant as remainders on a spreadsheet. There is a growing discrepancy between [their] right to self-assertion and [their] capacity to control the forces that might make such self-assertion feasible.

Russell’s most painful observation, the one that struck me where I live, is that the con men in politics who are able to capture the imaginations of these lied-to, thwarted people rely upon tropes that were first promulgated in the academy.

Call it what you like—relativism, postmodernism, deconstruction. The lesson is one and the same: The truth is not out there waiting to be objectively uncovered. The truth is made. Facts are fabricated as seen fit by the powers that be, and then consent for those facts is manufactured, enforced.

The idiot children born of Derrida and Foucault are alternative facts, fake news.

What undergirds Russell’s narrative of Florida is despair as invisible, dark, and pervasive as the limestone bedrock that sits beneath the state. To me, this feels like both the real and the true story of Florida. In recent years, the diminishment of the aquifer through climate change and agricultural use, the slow and terrifying death of the Everglades’ enormous filtration system, the pressure of salinated waters from the rising sea, the stupidly unconstrained construction and development are all creating an epidemic of sinkholes. When a sinkhole develops, the fragile karst suddenly gives way under the weight of the earth; in a moment, houses and cars and people are swallowed up.

I write this from the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had a similarly collapsing effect on Florida. A huge number of the state’s jobs are in the service sector: tourism, restaurant work, elder care, the gig economy—the realm of employment that thrives more than any other on ideas of predatory short-term growth and lax worker protection. Disney World, that great burbling morass of capitalism, announced it would furlough more than 43,000 of its workers, a move whose effects will ripple into employees’ families, both here and abroad; into school systems and food banks; into the very lowest and most fundamental reaches of the social safety net. What a small wind it takes for hedonism to tip into precarity!

This is not a flaw in the system. This has been, all along, the shifty, lying, scam-artist libertarian narrative at Florida’s core, from the conquistadores who trudged through the malarial swamps; to the Ponzi schemes of Gulf American, the real-estate company that sent flocks of salesmen to the Midwest and Northeast in the late 1950s to lure suckers into buying worthless plots of land in the swamp; to Walt Disney himself, who created an oligarchic capitalist microstate (like Satan’s Vatican) in the very heart of Florida; to the massive narcissistic baby in the White House who uses his Mar-a-Lago resort as a way to milk money out of patsies eager to buy influence.

The state has been built on promises of an eternal present, on blithe and deliberate disregard for the past so as not to have to learn from it—on a refusal to give a single naked whit about the future. Like people who don’t protest their fleecing in order to watch other people be swindled, we continue to perpetuate this corrosive narrative. In most elections, Florida votes for precisely the people trying to strip necessary life-giving protections from our neighbors and from the glorious natural environment that we are dependent on. Which is to say, of course, that the story of Florida is a story, in microcosm, of the United States of America.

Does this idea fill you with despondency? Does the thought of Florida make you want to laugh and cry at the same time? I, too, laugh at the capers of Florida Man, at the stupid beautiful bodies of sun-blistered spring-breakers, at the tourists who drunkenly wander too close to retention ponds and tempt the hunger of the gators. But if I’m laughing, it’s only through a quietly devastating despair. As Russell puts it in his hilarious gut punch of a book—a book that anyone who is interested in not only Florida, but the whole country, should read—“How long before a society of atomized individuals rightfully following only their desires, heedless of what they owe others, destroys itself?”

This article appears in the July/August 2020 print edition with the headline “Florida, Man.”