When Kent Russell published his debut collection of essays back in 2015, I readily enlisted in his growing army of fans. My review of Russell’s book, the unfortunately titled I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son, praised his imagery and sentence-making and his empathy with fringe characters, while lamenting his tedious dissection of his relationship with his impossible father. Readers reacted to that review with some foam-at-the-mouth vitriol. One reader identified as Toad wrote: “It’s not uncommon for young, confidence-lacking writers to baldly ape their influences (and to pepper their work with obscure, incorrectly utilized mega-words), but such attempts are better left in the desk drawer.” A reader named Anon suggested this alternative title for the book: I Am So Tired To Think That These Types of Books by These Types of Insufferable Twits Are Still Being Published and Will Continue to Be Until My Asshole Bleeds Out.
Wow. Russell is now out with a new book called In the Land of Good Living: A Journey to the Heart of Florida that’s sure to make readers like Toad and Anon foam and bleed all over again. Not because it’s a bad book, but because it is wildly uneven—with flashes of brilliance that are too often bogged down by half-baked analysis, clunky mega-words and, most disappointing of all, muddy writing.
The trouble begins in the opening pages, which are written in screenplay format. Why? Because our three heroes—Glenn, Noah and Kent—have loaded up a shopping cart with camping packs and film gear, and they’ve embarked on a thousand-mile walk from the Florida panhandle all the way to Russell’s hometown, Miami, a journey they hope to turn into a “gonzo” documentary movie—and this book. Kent, our author and tour guide, is described in screenplay-ese as a “PAUNCHY NEBBISH” and “something of an ARTIST and/or INTELLECTUAL” who grew a “long flowing mullet” for this return to his home state. Glenn is “a blond, blue-eyed, dad-bodied man in his early thirties” who is “UNAPLOGETICALLY CANADIAN.” And Noah is “a short, scowling IRAQ WAR VETERAN” whose once-bulging muscles are now swaddled in fat, “as if the action figure of his past life has been packed away under Bubble Wrap.” So far, sorta so-so. The real trouble is Kent’s reason for embarking on this journey: “I owed $37,000 in back taxes to the Internal Revenue Service. For, you see, when you are granted an advance on a book prior to its publication, the check you receive has none of your federal, state, or city taxes deducted from it. It’s one big lump sum, like the number stamped on an over-sized game-show check.”
So there you have it. Kent Russell is a graduate of the University of Florida, he has taught at Columbia University—and yet when he sold his first book to a major New York publisher, he was unaware that writers, like all other working stiffs under God’s sun, have to pay income taxes. What do they teach the kids down there in Gainesville? So by page 13, you’re aware that you’re reading a back-taxes-plus-penalties-and-interest book. A little later, Russell comes right out with his motivation for undertaking this project: “I am in debt up to my fucking eyeballs.”
From this unpromising set-up, the book tries to take flight, and sometimes it succeeds. Russell is especially good at thumbnail historical sketches of the avarice and chicanery that made Florida possible, beginning with the first white visitors from Spain and running right up to American industrialist Henry Flagler and Walt Disney. We learn interesting things not only about conquistadors and tourism and orange groves, but also about the influx of retirees, the spread of military installations, the importance of air conditioning, the demise of the Apalachicola oyster beds, the rapaciousness of real-estate developers, and Donald Trump’s deeply visceral appeal to Floridians. (The trip took place during the 2016 presidential campaign, which now feels like the Paleozoic Era.) Along the way we meet some engaging characters, including shrimpers, strippers, swamp dwellers, a “nuisance-alligator wrestler” (nice work if you can get it), and a recovering junkie named Rodrigo who plays Jesus at Disney World’s Holy Land Experience. These people go beyond being merely colorful, all the way to perceptive and, frequently, insightful. They’re also a reminder that Russell is at his best when he gets out of his own skull and does what good reporters do: he listens.
Less successful are Russell’s attempts to analyze What Florida Means. This produces a cloud of gas and a bushel of those mega-words that so infuriated Toad, including simulacrum (a word only a French philosopher could love), synecdoche (don’t bother looking it up, just watch the pretentious Charlie Kaufman movie with the word in its title), plus pestiferous, scrying, gibbous, plosive, syncretic, and strabismic. This is tricky terrain. No writer should be faulted for having an expansive vocabulary, but there’s a fine line between using unfamiliar words to good effect and using unfamiliar words to show off or, worse, to give badly assembled ideas a glossy paintjob. Too often, Russell uses these candy-apple words to dress up analyses that are, to be kind, on the thin side. Consider St. Augustine, America’s oldest city, which, according to Russell, has been turned into “a taxidermied approximation of its former self” and “a historical fiction like Colonial Williamsburg” and an “olde tyme simulacrum of Spanish Florida.” Which leads to these 10-cent aperçus: “History qua history matters only to the extent that it can be monetized. That it can be disarticulated into a series of attractions—a competitive advantage.” And: “The lure and blur of the real. That’s what St. Augustine had to work with.” Our trio deals with the lure and blur by pitching a coke-fuelled blackout drunk.
That world “real” keeps popping up. At one point, Glenn voices a reasonable fear: “I’m afraid we aren’t getting the real Florida. Right now we are just drifting through towns barely scratching the surface.” Russell shoots back: “You wanna get Florida? OK, well—you get Florida by inventing an interpretation of it. Preferably a for-profit interpretation. Think of, like…Seaside. Seaside got Florida by substituting its own simulation ‘Florida’ in the place of Florida.” I think I get it, but I’m not sure.
In this meta vein we learn why Dale, the aforementioned nuisance-alligator wrestler, rebuffed the overtures of a “real ‘reality’ TV” crew from L.A. but allowed Russell and his fellow gonzo documentarians into his world—because the L.A. crew had come to Florida “wanting to show the country how they already think we are back in L.A.” This leads Russell to an epiphany about the makers of “reality” TV that’s worth quoting at length:
These folks have power, real power, to fabricate narratives about the world. And Dale with his practical knowledge—his common sense—will forever be at odds with the malleable “reality” encoded and presented by television, social media, all of it. This malleable “reality” (which, let’s be honest, is displacing Dale’s reality via every screen in the land) is largely a rhetorical achievement. “Reality” no longer refers to the natural world and its limits. “Reality” rejects preconditions. “Reality” is whatever people want it to be, and then say it is, individually and en masse, making it so. In a sense, the real “reality” folks and the stars they have produced really are a breed of artist. Credit where credit is due…These artists, they act natural. And that is their art. The real “reality” artist is his own best fiction. His best fiction is his true self. One thing you could say about him—he’ll never be found guilty of insincerity! Or, for that matter, sincerity. “Kent” can no more be separated from Kent (were I one of these cretins) than lightning could be separated from its flashing.
Shortly after that flash of insight, Russell agrees to give a talk to a magazine-writing class at his alma mater. Russell’s writing has appeared in The New Republic, Harper’s, GQ, n+1, and The Believer, among other venues, so his former thesis adviser figures he has some “real”-world wisdom to pass along to the students. “Brass tacks,” Russell begins, while chugging on a Contigo full of hundred-proof booze, “if you’re going to be a magazine writer, you’re going to have to deal with magazine editors. You will prepare for these editors a free-range, pan-roasted squab of a story, OK, and they will take it, and they will rip it apart, and they will pluck nuance and complexity like so many fine bones.” Chug, chug. Lowering his voice, he staggers on, “This is the secret to all publishing, from magazines, to books, to I don’t care what. If you really want to get published, what you do is ape the stuff that’s already succeeded. You go after consensus. You tell a story to these editors about the things they already believe to be true. You hand them a mirror they can see themselves in. Or see themselves as they wish they were. Now, if that sounds less like writing than flattery, well…Not everybody is cut out for this business. I’m not even sure I am, now that I think about it.” After delivering this cynical screed, Russell polishes off the Contigo and heads for the exit while saying, “Writing is serving. Living is serving. Choose what you’re gonna serve…Point is, you gotta serve something.” If I were paying tuition for such hard-won wisdom, I’d demand my money back.
Which brings us to the muddy writing. In Timid Son, Russell showed himself to be capable of producing dazzling sentences and diamond-hard metaphors, but here the writing is frequently fuzzy and imprecise. A few samples: “Kent’s glare ratchets toward him like the head of a socket wrench.” (This makes no sense if you have ever used a socket wrench.) “Torn clouds flew overhead like the last shavings of a buzz saw nicking through wood.” (Likening clouds to buzz saw shavings strikes me as a stretch.) “Children kept their eyes trained on us while remaining still as things trapped under ice.” (Shouldn’t that be “trapped in ice”?) “The green inferno was humid to the point of hindered exhalation.” (This is what I mean by fuzzy and imprecise.) Disney World brings out the worst in Russell. There he boards a trolley that’s full of “a whole honking gaggle of Europeans.” These geese-like “Euros,” as he calls them, carry “water-bladderesque purses,” smoke unfiltered cigarettes and wear Capri pants “hemmed at inspired lengths.” Then: “I stretched out as the Euros exited the trolley. To the driver they trilled thank-yous, their English scented with accents that sounded the way flavored waters taste.” This sounds like it was written by one of the 200 million Americans who don’t own a passport and who, having never traveled to Europe, assume that all “Euros” share an accent, whether they come from Latvia or Luxembourg. It’s just plain bad writing—condescending, provincial and lazy.
Russell claims to loathe walking narratives, their “epiphanies” and “treacly sentimentality.” But the truth is that walking trips have inspired memorable writing by the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Muir (whose own thousand-mile walk ended not far from where Russell’s began), Jon Krakauer, Bill Bryson, and Cheryl Strayed, to name a few. You could even throw Mao Zedong into the mix. At its best moments, In the Land of Good Living is a reminder of the walking narrative’s chief virtue: it allows a writer to pass through ever-changing worlds, observing and absorbing at a leisurely pace. In our revved-up, screen-addicted age, it’s quite possibly an idea whose time has come again.
In the end, Russell does arrive at some sharp insights. “Florida isn’t just Weird America,” he writes, “it is Impending America.” Meaning it’s where we’re headed as a nation— straight off the cliff and into the deep warm sea. Florida, he adds, is an “unplanned, untenable boondoggle,” a place where “fixed meanings are prohibited by the spirit if not the letter of the law.” Surprisingly, the book’s sharpest insight comes from UNAPOLOGETICALLY CANADIAN Glenn, who looks around at the human flotsam of central Florida and delivers an observation that explains a lot of things, right up to America’s botched handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Some 300 miles into the journey, Glenn stretches out his arms and blurts: “All of this Rebel flag, meth lab, Breaking-Bad-slave-compound militia business. Like, ‘I got a God-given right to defend my crappy, ignorant life! You wanna make my existence better? You wanna send my kids to school? You wanna give me healthcare? Fuck you!’” It would not be much of a stretch to update this sentiment with: “You wanna try to tell me to wear a mask? You wanna try to tell me to stay six feet away from that sneezing meth-cooker in the MAGA hat? I’m an American! Fuck you!”
I’m not giving up on Kurt Russell because of one uneven book. He has too much talent and too much promise. I just hope he clears up his back taxes and finds a subject that springs from his pure passion—as opposed to his need for a quick buck. And when he embarks on his next book, I hope he has the good sense to ditch the Canadian and the Iraq War vet, then keep his mouth shut and listen to the people he meets along the way.