Craig Pittman thinks it might have been around the time of the 2000 election recount — you know, all that hanging-chad stuff. Sometime around then, Florida usurped California's role as the capital of crazy. The Golden State was long mocked for its touchy-feely encounter groups, free-form alternative lifestyles and wheat-germ serial killers. But in this millennium, Florida has left that place in the dust.
Hence Pittman's new book, Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country. When it comes to weirdness, you can't compete with Florida. Maybe because the state is the country's reservoir tip, all of the craziness collects in the phallic peninsula.
How else to explain some of the state's notable citizens: the guy arrested for beating up his girlfriend with a banana, or the man with a cardboard cutout gun, covered in tin foil, with which he robbed a convenience store. How about the woman stopped for reckless driving in the Keys who, it turned out, was swerving because she was shaving her pubic hair and steering with her knees?
You can't make up this stuff. Novelist Carl Hiaasen, the Marcel Proust of Sunshine State strangeness, has tried, only to have his novels' bizarre plot twists show up prepublication in the morning newspaper, necessitating a hasty rewrite to keep fiction stranger than truth.
Oh, Florida! grew from a blog Pittman wrote for Slate a couple of years back. Like the rest of the country, the editors of Slate couldn't believe the reports from Florida. Pittman's Twitter feed, @craigtimes, tagged as Oh #Florida, had by then become a reliable source of far-flung chuckles about the maniacs in the punchline state. So he blogged daily for a month, proving to the nation's readers that they'd just seen the tip of the loony iceberg. (Some samples: "Disgruntled Florida Man Uses Front-End Loader to Bury Boss In Dirt"; "Florida Man Caught Trying to Smuggle Dead Alligator in Car.")
But Pittman is a Florida native and a much-decorated Tampa Bay Times reporter known for his eloquent writing about the environment. So ultimately the book turns into a conflicted love letter to the state. When we were kids, we picked on our little brothers, but if someone else did it, we'd rise to the kid's defense. Floridians make fun of this state and its people but get proprietary when someone from Ashtabula or Sheboygan starts mocking the place.
Oh Florida! (in which this reviewer is briefly mentioned) isn't merely a collection of goofy stories or Florida-Man fodder, though Pittman deftly interweaves a startling number of can-you-believe-this tales. Like a good anthropologist, Pittman tries to make order, if not sense, from the madness.
He suggests that one of the main reasons for the concentration of strangeness is geographic. The land mass is narrow and a coast never too far away. It's warm and generally sunny. Of course a lot of people relocate. Many of them happen to be nutcases. The new arrivals aren't sufficiently prepared for alligators and hurricanes and real estate swindlers. Unlike the natives, the newbies don't understand the ways of the farce. And that's when the trouble starts.
With so many people in a tight space, things are bound to get weird. Florida has a lot of news outlets (including those in South Florida's Tabloid Valley), so the strange stories get reported. Then those stories hit the national wires and there's more head-shaking Florida weirdness to amuse the rest of the country. The same act — let's go with the mobile pubic-hair shaving — could occur in Wyoming, but who would ever know? (If craziness happens and there's no one there to report it, is it really crazy?) If it happens in Florida, then it's another brief in the state's case as the nation's laughingstock.
Pittman draws us in with skillfully told miniature comic operas about crooks and creeps, then uses those stories to lead to parables about the state and its myriad virtues and wonders that make the natives proud. There's still beauty in the state and fine, intelligent people no doubt embarrassed by Florida's growing reputation as land of the bizarre.
Pittman looks at Florida with a historian's eye for analysis. So we have a parade that includes not only the wonderfully weird, but also the people whose lives affected millions of Americans — Walt Disney, Zora Neale Hurston and Clarence Earl Gideon, to name a few. Pittman deftly moves from comedy to tragedy with the stories of Terri Schiavo, Trayvon Martin and others with lives caught in the motors of the media machine.
Oh, Florida! brings readers in for laughs, but then gets them to stick around for the tale of a maddening, fascinating and wonderful place.
William McKeen is the chairman of the journalism department at Boston University and former chairman of the journalism department at the University of Florida.