Like a greased manatee, Florida eludes capture. It’s too big, too ungraspable for tidy description. Scarcely is one aspect understood (it’s the Sunshine State) before an oppositional trait emerges (it’s our fifth wettest). Yet paradoxically, Florida is also the state most in need of an explanation. Why is it so bizarre? Why is it trying to kill us? Why does it produce so many outrageous headlines, like “Florida man changes name to Bruce Jenner to preserve name’s ‘heterosexual roots’” and “Florida man who died in cockroach-eating contest choked to death, autopsy says?” In fact, why has it produced so many outrageous headlines that the phrase “Florida Man” has become a meme, a nom de guerre for a demented, often nude antihero complete with his own Twitter account and Wikipedia entry?
There’s a temptation to answer these questions like a pointillist — to list headlines, write vignettes, and enumerate the weirdest, most depraved stories one can find. One hopes that from a far enough remove, such disparate dots will blend into a cohesive whole and a central narrative will emerge. There has to be a set of qualities linking crossbow-mutilated genitals, invasive Burmese pythons, and nude face-eating zombies because if there isn’t, we’re looking at unpredictable madness. And isn’t that terrifying?
These are the questions Craig Pittman attempts to answer in his latest book, Oh, Florida!: How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country. Part travelogue, history, and memoir, it’s altogether best understood as the author’s quest to establish a Unified Theory of Florida’s Weirdness, and to make the argument that none of this is new. It’s an impressively difficult task, but it’s also one that Pittman, a veteran reporter and a Floridian by birth, is supremely qualified to undertake. (Case in point: his Twitter account.)
In more than 300 pages, Pittman capably demonstrates that throughout history, Florida’s served as our nation’s testing ground, or a Petri dish from which localized events have mutated and spread into national trends. The state was the first one settled by Europeans, for instance. It was the first to preserve a national wildlife refuge. Miami’s ubiquitous cartel violence led in no small way to the modern War on Drugs, and Anita Bryant’s antagonism accelerated America’s gay rights movement. Florida begat the moon landing. During the Cold War, its proximity to Cuba almost led to our mutually assured destruction. Twice. More recently, it was where the 9/11 hijackers trained, where the housing bubble burst, and its rapidly changing demographics will surely shape our political future. As goes Florida, so follows the nation — if not the world.
(Of course, one major challenge with any Florida book is that the state moves swiftly. When Pittman submitted his manuscript to press, there were five Florida Republicans running for president; now only one part-timer remains, and not the one most expected. Furthermore, in the past month the state’s dominated the news because it was the site of the nation’s most-deadly mass shooting, which couldn’t have been foreseen, let alone by the time the book was written. Already a sequel is needed.)
To make sense of all this ignoble influence, Pittman reduces the most outlandish headlines to their basic elements, and from there he attempts to ascribe reason. Drugs are abundant because there’s so much exploitable coastline, and drugs lead Floridians to fight. Floridians also fight because the weather is hot, and they’re frequently nude (or at least shirtless) for the same reason. Additionally, Floridians fight because there are so many recent arrivals who’ve moved to the state from elsewhere, and they “haven’t yet built up any trust with the folks next door.” And when squabbles make it to court, juries are often lenient for the same reason: “so many of [them] are transient and feel no strong connection to [their] community,” Pittman writes. Meanwhile, we learn about each crime’s scandalous details because of the state’s robust open records laws, which make police reports and court transcripts accessible to journalists anywhere.
While these answers adhere to a convincing logic, the effect of learning that logic can be disappointing. It’s like a magician revealing the secrets behind his tricks — sure, now it makes sense, but don’t we wish it didn’t? Where’s the whimsy, the fantastic? Readers hoping to find some exotic cause of the state’s residential craziness — tropical brain rot, maybe — instead learn that, actually, the government is tragically awful at treating its mentally ill. That so many financial hoodwinks occur has less to do with some evil enzyme endemic in citrus groves than it does with the fact that there are a lot of wealthy retirees ripe for the swindling, and a lot of opportunistic criminals. There are so many shark attacks not because Floridians taste good, but because so many of them go swimming. In fact, a lot of Florida’s strangeness can be chalked up to simple geography:
Put nineteen million residents and nearly one hundred million tourists in such a narrow space and you’re bound to generate conflict over whose turn it is at the drive-thru or whether oak trees or palms should line the streets. Adding fuel to this fire is the discovery that Florida is full of perils to life and limb, ranging from sand spurts to hurricanes, sinkholes, and shark bites.
In this sense, Pittman’s service journalism makes Oh, Florida! an invaluable addition to the Florida canon, which urgently needs serious voices to balance out the farcical, hyperbolic works produced by Carl Hiaasen and bloggers the world over. Likewise, Pittman does necessary work to highlight the forgotten or unheralded influence of Floridians who’ve shaped modern life — both for better and worse — such as Robert Hayling and Marion Hammer, respectively. He also demonstrates that for as long as the state’s had settlers, it’s also had shady real estate scammers; and he does a nice job calling out the state’s qualities that are objectively fantastic: the beaches, the preserves, the weather. Truly, there’s a lot to like in here, and the book should be required reading for Florida completists as well as outsiders cracking jokes about the state’s foibles; don’t mock that which you don’t understand, and recognize that before Florida Man, there was something like Homo Floridius, or Floridopithecus perhaps.
And to the extent that the book has any shortfalls, they are entirely matters of personal taste – of not going far enough. For instance, while Pittman’s gaze focuses on the state overall, I would’ve liked to see more attention paid to South Florida specifically, which to my eyes serves as the state’s driving engine of transformation, and also as the best indication of America’s future: multicultural, defined by income equality, and existentially threatened by climate change. (Maybe the oversight is explained by the fact that South Florida is distinct from the rest of the state, and doesn’t fit neatly into Pittman’s central theses.)
Also, instead of generalizing or exaggerating, Pittman’s journalistic instincts often limit his arguments to those that can be fact-checked and confirmed, which means he stops short of some key points. This is a particular hindrance when it comes to Florida Man and his origin story. Left unanswered in Oh, Florida! is the question of why we’ve become so fascinated with him in the past few years. Why now, Florida Man?
To some degree, the answer lies in the proliferation of social media, which provides a platform for turning small town news headlines into viral content. But there’s got to be more to it.
Perhaps the answer can be gleaned from trashiness, one of Florida Man’s most inextricable features, and a trait made evident to viewers of the recent Florida Man documentary, or readers of John Lingan’s convincing piece for Pacific Standard:
Florida Man could only come from our most geographically self-contained, ecologically forbidding state, the one full of sinkholes, swamps, wild gators, and urban coastal flooding. Florida Man is a Yankee nightmare in human form. He is everything frightening about white trash life in one meme — particularly the fear that your poor, aimless life will beget little more than a backwater local news curio and subsequent jail time.
Yet while both of those examples focus on a particular brand of trashiness — that is, white trashiness — I submit that the conditions responsible for creating Florida Man are more egalitarian. And while Pittman lays some groundwork to establish the foundation of this argument — breezily recounting the struggles of early Florida Crackers, and identifying the state’s long history of enforced impoverishment on members of certain races and ethnicities — he doesn’t quite make the leap necessary to sure up class’s overall influence on Florida Man.
It’s a fact often ignored when weird Florida news makes the rounds that the subjects of those stories are so often poor people being arrested for crimes associated with poverty, such as those motivated by addiction, or linked to domestic violence, larceny, or burglary. It’s also not a coincidence that the most archetypal Florida Man stories originate in counties more similar to Polk than Dade; indeed, the flavor of a Central Florida Man story is distinct from that of South Florida Man story. If tragedy is comedy plus time, then an archetypal Florida Man story is trashiness plus irony — and a South Florida Man story is all of that plus ambition. Put another way: the ideal Florida Man story involves a woman named Crystal Metheny firing a missile into a car, while a South Florida Man story involves bodybuilding ex-soldiers getting their international Molly ring busted because of a pornstar’s temper tantrum. While the ideal Florida Man candidate bought a bunch of houses he couldn’t afford before the 2008 Recession, the prototypical South Florida Man is probably the former bartender who sold those homes to him. Do you see the difference? At the same time, do you see the similarities?
Whereas South Florida’s infamy stems from botched get rich quick schemes and deliberate, organized crime, the lifeblood of the more typical Floridian weirdness originates in something more intimate and tragic still. That’s why for every one of Florida Man’s calamities, there are a handful of more despicable and humorless episodes — like Quran-burning pastors and outright hate crimes — that originate from a similarly dark, sad place. All trashy Florida stories are alike; each trashy Florida Man story is ironic in its own way. That only the ironic ones make national news tells you more about the audience than the perpetrators.
So why have Florida Man stories drawn so much more attention since, say, 2008? (Pittman traces to “modern” era of Florida’s influence to the 2000 election; in that sense, 2008 marks the start of our post-modern one, and years henceforth could be known as A.F.M.: After Florida Man.) Well, since that time Florida’s been dealing with ground zero of the nation’s housing crisis, an ongoing raid of government programs, a rapidly deteriorating ecosystem (which in turn leads to more polluted waters, more contaminated water sources, more powerful natural disasters, etc…), a stagnant job market, and an escalating opioid epidemic — all factors affecting disadvantaged populations more than their better-heeled peers. And against that backdrop, those same disadvantaged populations have become more desperate.
Meanwhile, rather than paying attention to Florida Man’s originating factors — such as Florida’s abysmally run state government — outsiders have preferred paying attention to Florida Man only as a source of amusement. It’s a particular kind of amusement, too, that’s motivated by a need for the comparative reassurance that, bad as it is for them in their states and in their hometowns, at least they’re not at a point that low. At least they’d never do that. The nation at large looks at Florida Man in much the same way privileged, yuppie audiences look at contestants on Jerry Springer or Maury.
Yet the scariest thing about Florida Man, and what gives his mythos such sudden traction, is that his originating factors could be coming for us all, and I think on some level we all recognize that. As Florida goes, so follows the nation. As Florida’s shoreline is eaten away by rising seas, so, too is the rest of the East Coast’s. As income inequality in Florida becomes more and more pronounced, so, too widens the divide between the nation’s rich and poor. From 2000 to 2010, Florida was the most corrupt state; that other states recently surpassed it in the rankings doesn’t mean Florida got better so much as it means the rest of the country got worse. So on and so forth. It’s possible that the conditions leading to Florida Man’s creation are rapidly becoming more common elsewhere, and before long California Man and Texas Man will rise to their own infamy.
Get your laughs in now, America, because Florida Man’s coming to a town near you.