In the ominous fall of 2016, writer Kent Russell and two friends set out to walk across Florida.
Young men whose lives have hit various potholes, they’re looking for adventure and escape, but in some artful form. They take inspiration from former Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, who in 1970 launched a three-decade political career with a “walking-talking and listening campaign” that covered more than 1,000 miles. They aim to film their journey for a documentary. Call it, maybe, Florida: Would We Lie to You?
What could go wrong?
People, it’s Florida. Things you never knew existed could go wrong, all part of the state that, as Russell writes, is “the petri dish whence things like Stand Your Ground laws, core curricula, and majority-minority city governments spring. It is where fabulous wealth, natural splendor, and unfettered desire mingle with systemic poverty, inequality, violence, and addiction.” Despite the plainly visible effects of climate change, “we’re still selling the dream, still hawking waterfront condos as fast as we can build them.”
Russell comes by his exasperation with and love for Florida by birth. He’s a Miami native, and writing on the strange sides of Florida seems to be a family business: His sister Karen Russell is the author of the marvelous 2011 novel Swamplandia!, set amid the jolting juxtaposition of the Everglades and theme parks.
Kent Russell’s writing is nonfiction, some of it journalism that has appeared in such places as the New Republic, the Believer and Grantland. Some of it is memoir, a genre that often veers from the strictly factual, a tendency Russell readily admits. His first book, the 2015 essay collection I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son, combined both, with reported stories about a snake handler and Amish baseball fans, among others, interspersed with personal essays about the idea of manhood and his relationship with his father.
In the Land of Good Living is a memoir with a focus on Florida, although the nature of manhood is still a theme, this time in terms of friendships among men. Russell recruits two friends for the trip and introduces them on the first page, one of many sections of the book written in screenplay format. Noah, his college friend from 10 years ago, is a Marine veteran of war in Iraq, who “would be more intimidating if the tattoos sleeving his limbs were related to anything other than DUNGEONS & DRAGONS.”
Glenn is a more recent acquaintance, an affable “dad-bodied man” who is “UNAPOLOGETICALLY CANADIAN” and the only one of the trio who actually knows anything about filmmaking. Russell describes himself as a “PAUNCHY NEBBISH. ... He grew a long and flowing mullet in anticipation of this return to his home state” from New York.
They set out from the western end of Florida’s Panhandle, from the Flora-Bama Lounge, “a debaucherous indoor/outdoor Hooverville that straddles both states.” By the end of the first week, they’ve walked as far as Destin, and it’s clear to Russell that he’s in no shape to carry his backpack. He acquires a shopping cart he christens Rolling Thunder, later replaced by an antique baby buggy given to them by a general store owner in Sopchoppy (Rock-a-Bye Thunder), a jogging stroller (Jog-a-Bye Thunder) and finally a mobility scooter bartered from a bunch of marijuana growers squatting in an abandoned subdivision east of Naples.
The walk itself is perilous; they choose the state’s highways rather than its nature trails. Drivers try to run them over. They stumble over sun-cured roadkill. They occasionally are run off private property when they set up camp at night. Russell’s feet sprout blisters and bleeding warts; his toenails fall off. Their tempers grow short. But they persevere.
Their meandering route goes across the Panhandle, through Gainesville (where Russell and Noah went to college) to St. Augustine, down through Orlando and across to the west coast before veering back across the Tamiami Trail to Miami.
Russell is not just a native but a student of Florida history. At each stop, along with their encounters with contemporary Floridians, he fills in details about everything from oystering in Apalachicola Bay (and why you’re unlikely to get a real Apalachicola oyster anyplace else), to the shady origin story of Disney World and its astonishing impact on the state’s economy.
The trio interview Panhandle shrimpers, Cassadaga mediums, a wrestler-turned-ghost tour guide and cocaine dealer, evacuees from Hurricane Matthew, a man who plays Jesus at the Holy Land Experience.
Their stop in Tampa and St. Petersburg yields a couple of fascinating interludes. Russell’s insightful history of Florida as a retiree haven, inspired by St. Petersburg, explores just what kind of retirees came here (and still come), and how they have shaped the state: “Florida’s retirees have forbidden the past and the future to bear on their present. They’ve snipped off today at both ends, like a coupon.”
In Tampa, they meet Joe Redner and conduct “the straitest-laced interview with a strip club kingpin you could imagine.” They also visit his most legendary club, the Mons Venus, where one of the more than 100 dancers knowledgeably explains the business model before giving Glenn a lap dance.
At the Mons, Russell is struck by an insight: that these women could not make the journey that he and his friends are making. “Through no fault of their own, I mean. It’s just that the foremost narrative possibility our culture affords unaccompanied women on the side of the highway is not liberation, desire, quest — but rather rape, death, some combination of the two.”
As early as the Panhandle, Russell began to see omens that Donald Trump might win Florida. He’s startled after attending a Spiritualist service in Cassadaga to see a parking lot full of cars with “Hillary for Prison 2016″ stickers. For the only time on the trip, he rents a car to drive back to Gainesville, where he and Noah are registered to vote, on Election Day.
“The unimaginable is unimaginable until it happens,” Russell writes. They spend a nightmarish evening in a Lakeland Applebee’s watching the returns, and soon after the election they have a heartbreaking interview in Miami with a climate scientist who says, “I certainly hope that Donald Trump is going to understand the seriousness of this.” Russell deftly weaves Trump, who is of course a Florida Man, into his overall narrative of the state as the natural habitat of every kind of con man.
There are moments of beauty as well, like a breathtaking vision of a Florida panther. And the journey ends with a visit to Russell’s childhood home in Coconut Grove and another vision, one of Florida as a map of past, present and future: the Panhandle, where “the worst fears of antebellum whites still obtain”; fast-growing, bustling Central Florida with its armies of low-wage service workers; and “majority-minority, wildly unequal, hilariously corrupt, vapid, gorgeous, climate-change-doomed South Florida.”
“The further south we walk,” Russell writes, “the further along the United States’ narrative arc we travel.”
In the Land of Good Living: A Journey to the Heart of Florida
By Kent Russell
Knopf, 320 pages, $26.95