Saturday, June 23, 2018
Books

Review: 'Easy Rider' gets a Florida spin in Dorsey's 'Coconut Cowboy'

Road trip!

That could be the motto for all of Tampa author Tim Dorsey's wacky novels about Serge Storms, devoted Floridaphile and fantasy-fulfilling serial killer.

In Dorsey's latest, Coconut Cowboy (which takes its title from a nostalgic detail of Serge's childhood), Serge finds inspiration for his own road trip in search of the American Dream in one of the most iconic road trips in film history: Easy Rider.

As Serge explains to his perpetually buzzed sidekick, Coleman: "Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were heading to Florida. That was their ultimate goal. And after they trip on acid in that cemetery and hit the road, I'm rubbing my palms in anticipation: 'Okay, here comes the best part of all! My home state!' And then suddenly it's over. I bought the DVD to scour the bonus material for an alternate ending, but no luck there, either."

Serge's intention is to "pick up the baton that Fonda and Hopper dropped ... to create our own alternate ending." He has to modify his homage to Captain America and Billy a bit — instead of two choppers, he acquires one, with a sidecar, since Coleman can't be relied upon to steer one by himself. But, as always with Serge, it's the spirit of the thing that counts.

While Serge and Coleman are wending their way through the Panhandle, on a route that "will take us on an odyssey through a bygone time, exactly like Lawton Chiles saw, except with meth labs," Dorsey sets up other elements of the plot taking place down in Central Florida, in a town called Wobbly.

Ostensibly chosen to honor its founder, Wobbly's name also reflects its geology: It has a serious sinkhole problem. That's what a new resident, geologist Peter Pugliese, discovers when he's drafted to evaluate a construction project by the town's government, which is made up entirely of members of a single family. They're presided over by Vernon Log, who's the mayor and the police chief and some other things, and they hold most of their meetings in a barbecue joint called Lead Belly's.

Sometimes, though, they have discussions that aren't fit for public eavesdropping, as when they're talking about why they'll continue that construction project even after the model home disappears into the earth and Peter tells them to stop building. Or talking about their dealings with Steve from Miami, whose used car brokerage is a front for drug smuggling, a business model that calls for some friendly small-town money laundering.

What does all that have to do with Serge? Don't worry, Dorsey will get us there — and after all, the journey is the thing. Serge will give us one of his inimitable guided tours, with stops in Gainesville to honor Tom Petty's legacy and at Spirit of the Suwannee in Live Oak for the Purple Hatters Ball.

Along the way Serge and Coleman acquire a traveling companion, an earnest Princeton student named Matt who is doing research for his thesis on Florida as "the nation's pace car of dysfunction." He tracks down Serge after seeing his website and mistakenly thinking it's satire.

Serge is trying to work on his temper and express his better nature, as when he notes that wake-free manatee zones are a "spiritual commandment with me." But some people just get under his skin, and he can't help doing what the rest of us sometimes wish we could do. When Serge stumbles upon a porn site showing "crush" videos — a fetish that involves women in high heels killing small animals by stepping on them — he's enraged by the cruelty. He tracks down the guy who makes the videos and arranges for him to meet his maker under the hooves of Lu, the hippopotamus that lives at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park.

Then there's the hedge-fund manager in the Ferarri, who stops at a "healthy" fast-food restaurant, refuses to pause a loud conversation on his phone while he orders — and then steals from the tip jar to buy a gluten-free cookie. He'll meet death by Dorito dust (plus another movie homage, this one to Hitchcock) courtesy of Serge.

Serge's army of fans may soon see him come to their TV screens. In December it was announced that the books are in development as a television show. Florida Roadkill, named for the first novel in the series, is being produced by Sonar Entertainment. No date or channel has been announced, but Dorsey says a script is completed and casting should be under way soon.

That's not all the news about Dorsey. On Tuesday (the same day Coconut Cowboy is published) in a ceremony in Sarasota, he will receive the John D. MacDonald Award for Excellence in Florida Fiction, named for the influential Florida crime fiction writer who created the Travis McGee series. This year is the centennial of MacDonald's birth; the award named for him was established in 1992 by JDM Bibliophile and is now awarded by the nonprofit Green Flash Salvage.

Dorsey is only the seventh writer to receive the award, and it puts him in pretty good company: The previous winners were Elmore Leonard, Paul Levine, James W. Hall, Charles Willeford, Randy Wayne White and Stuart Kaminsky.

The Serge books are often hilarious, but there's always something serious underpinning the antics. MacDonald was well known for his deep love of Florida and his anger at those who exploit its beauty and its people — which makes Dorsey the perfect choice to receive the award.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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