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The Florida Books That Actually Explain America

By sifting through a swamp of stereotypes, authors from the Sunshine State have discovered a national truth

Most of us know Florida Man as a meme, but he’s more than that. Florida Man is a figure of the new American spirit which, unlike the Horatio Alger myth, is “downwardly mobile.”

Kent Russell outlines three essential qualities of the Florida Man in his new book, In the Land of Good Living. The first is intemperance (“Florida Man Pocket-Dials 911 While Cooking Meth with Mom”); then violence (“Florida Man Mistakes Girlfriend for Hog, Shoots Her”); and finally, a confidence artist (“Florida Man’s Church Loses Tax-Exempt Status Because It’s Reportedly Just a Nightclub”).

Russell, a native of Miami, is a Florida Man himself. A headline of his new book might read: “Florida Man Arrested for Hijacking an Electric Scooter While High on Magic Mushrooms and Babbling About the American Spirit.”

Interestingly, in recent years, Florida hasn’t only been a tremendous contributor to Page Six, but also a wellspring for high-caliber literature: Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell and Florida by Lauren Groff are just a few titles that come to mind. Some critics might knuckle their spectacles and say Florida, like the lede above, is a low-hanging fruit. After all, the state is an obvious punching bag for the unbridled American id, a harbinger for white trash (that delightful mix of horror and comedy, wrapped in bacon), a swing state ripe for extrapolating on American politics, and because of Disney and retirement communities, a warped vision of paradise to large swaths of Americans. 

What I’m saying is, Florida basically writes itself. But even so, that doesn’t make it any less juicy. It should come as no surprise then that writers have come to harvest. In the Land of Good Living, which chronicles a 1,000-mile odyssey into the heart of Florida, is the latest addition to this infant canon. 

In August 2016, as the gales of Trumpism were culminating into a tropical storm, Kent Russell and two other Yankee goons set out to hoof the entire length of Florida and, in the course of doing so, peer into the soul of America. Like all good travelogues, Russell nimbly ambles between dispatches from the road, the history of the state, philosophical digressions on American ideals and spirited descriptions of a unique landscape that refused to be developed for centuries (dating as far back to Ponce de León and the Spanish conquistadors). 

“Florida is almost like Neapolitan ice cream,” Russell tells me over the phone. “The panhandle is very much the Deep South — piney, Southern Gothic, uncomfortable, but also super polite.” Central Florida is an “American anyplace,” and South Florida is “largely shaped by sociopolitical forces from Latin America.” In a Hegelian fashion, Russell’s journey from the conservative backwoods of the panhandle to majority minority-run Miami, loosely parallels that of the American spirit through U.S. history.

Home to boundless swamps, carnivorous insects, choking humidity and regular hurricanes, Florida was considered an “accursed land” by Spanish colonizers and, for centuries, thwarted efforts by colonists toward settlement and, later, development by real-estate tycoons. When recounting the early history of the state, Russell frequently compares it to the Western frontier, painting a picture of the inhospitable peninsula as lawless, wily, hostile to Native Americans and rapacious toward the environment. To this end, it also shared frontier values — guns, individualism and weak government. 

But the landscape we see today, Russell is quick to note, is less a reflection of the natural world than a projection of the American psyche. After settlement, the second great transformation to Florida’s landscape was tourism. Today’s landscape is highly groomed (manicured palm trees, beaches with imported fine white sands) and punctuated with alluring roadside attractions to catch the traveling eye and seize the coin in their pocket. “Only two percent of the original Everglades ecosystem is truly intact,” notes one of Russell’s traveling companions. At another point, this same companion worries they “aren’t getting the real Florida.” To which Russell replies, “You get Florida by inventing an interpretation of it. Preferably a for-profit [one].” 

The epicenter of tourism in Florida, and arguably all of the U.S., is Disney World in Orlando. “No other place in America has been so quickly and thoroughly (re)shaped by tourism,” Russell writes of Orlando. The tourism boom lead to remarkable economic and population growth, but that wasn’t matched by wages, which remained stagnant for decades, nor quality of life. “Both [Florida and Orlando] run on low-skill, minimum-wage service jobs because that’s what touristic infrastructure is built around,” Russell points out.

Even before Disney arrived in 1971, Orlando and its surrounding areas were lined with roadside attractions and theme parks. Thanks to Eisenhower’s interstate program, the largest public works program in recent U.S. history, travel was now democratized. No longer was it just well-heeled Yankees training down the coast, but also families from the Midwest who piled in and drove south however many hours to burn cash and skin in endless sunshine. A Florida vacation came to signify a middle-class status, and in this way, cemented itself as a kind of paradise in the American imagination. 

Russell and crew end their journey in Miami (or “My-ammuh” as one shrimper named “Captain Dale” puts it). My-ammuh, despite all its apparent differences, isn’t a complete departure from its northern counterpart. Here, too, a kind of autonomy reigns in the sense that groups of immigrants didn’t assimilate, but instead, consolidated power. “[N]ewcomers don’t conform themselves to Miami,” Russell writes. “Miami morphs to fit them.” The result is that “everybody lives in a different Miami — their own Miami,” and so, we’re left with the same strain of autonomy that privileges individuality over shared ground. 

It might be more accurate to describe this journey as a pilgrimage, rather than an odyssey. Burbling under all of Russell’s inquiries into the history of Florida are questions and challenges to long-standing American ideals, individual liberty chief among them. “Individual, autonomous choice,” writes Russell, “is the end-all be-all in the interpersonal realm (D), and it is likewise sacrosanct when it comes to economics (R). … [This is] the endpoint of modernity, where the freely choosing self finds meaning nowhere outside of itself.”

What, he decries, ever happened to the notion of liberty as “not the absence of constraint, but the exercise of self-limitation?” For Russell, our notion of liberty has mutated to sanctify individual autonomy at the expense of common ground. Thinkers in this camp would argue that a degree of shared sacrifice is necessary for a healthy, functioning democracy. And although Russell doesn’t explicitly state this, it’s worth noting an undue portion of this sacrifice has been shouldered by Black and Brown Americans.

To Russell’s mind, Trump is our first Floridian president, more Palm Beach than Queens. To his credit, Russell doesn’t do much hand-wringing over Trump and his election, but instead takes aim at “pencil necks” in liberal media who egregiously missed the mark when reporting the 2016 election and are now, at least in the offices of the Grey Lady, profiting handsomely from those mistakes. Russell questions whether these coastal eggheads ever actually interacted with the “white, working-class voters” that became the most important, most discussed voting block after the election. “They are a class that has been told time and again that they are exceptionally free,” writes Russell. “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.”

Taking cues from voters, who seem to be motivated more by emotion and rhetoric than policy, Russell is less concerned with politics at the level of legislation than with diagnosing the American psyche. Florida, of course, is always a battleground state — and a decisive one at that. Florida was made infamous by Bush v. Gore in 2000 and pivotal to Trump’s victory in 2016. 

Why, though, is Florida uniquely positioned to tell the story of America? “Florida winked into existence right when the American century came online,” Russell tells me. “All the rapid changes the country has experienced in that time period are present in Florida and perhaps magnified to a carnivalesque degree.” 

If Florida is a useful entry point for understanding American history, then might it also be a helpful indicator for where we’re headed as a nation? This seems more prescient considering the fact that a Florida Man occupies the White House. If the Florida Man is truly downwardly mobile, then perhaps Florida, which emerged in the popular American imagination after World War II when the U.S. was at the height of its powers, will live on as a meme of the decline of the American empire.