By Drew Hart
Ah, Florida, “the grease trap under America’s George Foreman Grill”: not just “weird America,” also “impending America.”
In the Land of Good Living: A Journey to the Heart of Florida by Kent Russell. Knopf, 320 pp.
It’s an interesting question: when is it time to revisit a literary subject that has been thoroughly combed over in past years? Writers whose work precedes Kent Russell’s In the Land of Good Living in studying the strange and rather singular state (island?) of Florida are numerous and varied — they include earnest and realistic authors such as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Peter Mathiessen, playful entertainers like Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry, infrequent visitors as in Joy Williams and Tom McGuane, and the most recent exceedingly talented storytellers Lauren Groff (Florida) and Karen Russell (Orange World), the last being Kent Russell’s older sister.
What to do then, when following in these kind of footsteps? Well, Russell, a Miami native, decided to follow them literally: walking down, around and across the state with two friends from school years — Noah, an Iraq war veteran, and Glenn, an aspiring filmmaker from Canada. As proposed by Noah, this journey recalls one made by the former governor, Lawton Chiles, a colorful political character who once covered a thousand miles on foot while campaigning. How better to meet the real Florida?
The three hit the ground in the state’s Panhandle, proceeding east, then south, then west, for a planned documentary — following highway shoulders, carrying camera equipment in a number of unlikely conveyances including baby buggies and mobility scooters. It’s 2016: they pass through military towns, frighteningly sterile planned communities, old time fishing villages. The book pauses in places for various soliloquies — on boomers, Trumpists, Trump himself, masculinity, reality TV — and also drops into screenplay mode now and again when filming is under way. Here come vigilantes, shrimp boat captains, alligator hunters, and lots of suspicious locals. And here comes a major hurricane, Matthew, which our guys hunker down for in an inland motel where they party with R.V. owners that have fled the coast … but the storm veers away. Tallahassee fails to impress; Emerson is quoted, having called it a “grotesque place” populated by “public officers, land speculators and desperadoes.” Orlando comes on the horizon, land of also-ran theme parks (“Disney’s sloppy seconds”) and their service workers (“pretty much anybody you don’t have to give health insurance to”). There’s a lowdown on Disney’s faux future vision, Epcot Center; a glimpse of Orlando’s Bible Park, the Holy Land Experience. As it turns out, Jesus isn’t at the latter spot; the trio meet him — well, really a self-appointed performer — at Disney World, where they drink their way around the park’s “International” Restaurant Row.
Are we there yet? Uh uh, maybe only halfway. On to Tampa, where there are encounters with strip joint dancers and their libertarian club owner; to southwest Florida, land of failed real estate developments — Russell and company wrangle with crazed drifters and sleep in abandoned homes that have previously hosted junkies. Getting down to the Everglades, they meet marijuana-growing backwoods settlers who discuss eating turtles and porpoises (“just some more Floridians”). Of course there are alligators, a Florida panther, and amazing bird life, some of them witnessed while high on mushrooms. Saving the biggest zoo for last, the trip winds up in Miami, where university geology experts and city engineers are interviewed on camera making predictions about the city’s future, both fatalistic and bullishly positive in the face of rising oceans. (A professor is hopeful about environmental action from Trump!)
Ah, Florida, “the grease trap under America’s George Foreman Grill”: not just “weird America,” also “impending America.” Though our heroes worry their movie about it isn’t capturing the place — only “gas stations and maniacs” — and it looks as though there will never be a final cut, they bear testimony to the old saying that getting there can be half the fun. At times predictably caricatured and at others less than original, Land still succeeds in being a full-bodied update on life in the Sunshine State. There’s more than enough gonzo curiosity to take it for a spin, especially if you have no previous exposure.
Drew Hart is from Santa Barbara, California.