Who better to explain the Florida Man phenomenon than a Florida man?
Not that Tyler Gillespie fits that viral profile. He has never, so far as I know, thrown an alligator into a drive-thru window. Indeed, as he makes clear in his new book, The Thing About Florida: Exploring a Misunderstood State, he really, really, really doesn’t want to touch any alligators at all. And when he finally does touch one, he doesn’t say “Hold my beer” first.
Gillespie is a fifth-generation Floridian, though. He grew up in Pinellas County, attending Southern Baptist church and school, rambling around Clearwater Beach with his mom and admiring the shuffleboard players at his great-grandmother’s mobile home park.
So he has an insider’s view of the phenomenon that grew out of the Frankenstein’s-laboratory confluence of Florida Man headlines and social media. He took on the subject in his first book, a 2018 collection of found poetry called Florida Man: Poems.
His new book goes into greater depth with a winning combination of personal experience and reporting. (He earned an MA in journalism from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg as well as an MFA in creative writing from the University of New Orleans.)
The Florida Man meme is based on the idea that Florida is weirder than anyplace else. As a drag queen that Gillespie interviews says, “People think everything is weird about Florida. ... Once I accepted it is a weird place, it was a freeing feeling.”
Gillespie talks to plenty of weird people in this book: gator wrestlers and pet smugglers, storm chasers and Confederate reenactors, drag queens and a cattle rancher who feeds his cows cakes and doughnuts from Publix.
Gillespie’s portraits of them don’t stop at the news-bite surface, though. His writing is witty, but never mean; he’s looking for the human beings behind the headlines, and he finds them. He’s even tenderhearted about wild hogs: “I’m not trying to shame the hogs — it’s not their fault they’re in Florida — but they caused a lot of problems.”
He’s also looking for himself, as he tells us: “I wrote about issues that nagged or scared me as my own form of desensitization therapy. Apparently, I’m a masochist.”
So he goes into the Everglades to hunt pythons, even though he’s terrified of snakes. As a kid, he writes, he never thought much about Southern history or his family’s connection to it — but then “I found a baby bib with my name stitched below a Confederate flag in one of my keepsake boxes.” So he heads to the Brooksville Raid Reenactment, attended in 2019 by 1,500 volunteer reenactors, to get a sense of what that history means to them.
One thread that runs through the book is his struggles growing up as a gay kid in a Southern Baptist family, crossing the bridge across Tampa Bay to live a double life in Ybor City’s clubs. It’s a thread that connects to his experience of losing a close friend in the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, and he ties them together with a balance of heartbreak and humor.
And some of what he recounts is just Florida weird. Take the meal he eats in Fort Myers before the python hunt: “The Everglades Pizza cost forty-five dollars. Python, deep-fried frog legs, alligator, hog, and swamp cabbage (hearts of palm) topped the pizza.”
But that’s not the weird part. That pizza is not putting a dent in the python invasion — you can’t eat Florida python, even if you’re a full-tilt-boogie Florida Man, because it’s laced with dangerous levels of mercury. The python for the pizza is raised on farms in Vietnam and shipped on ice to Florida for $65 a pound.
The Thing About Florida: Exploring a Misunderstood State
By Tyler Gillespie
University Press of Florida, 164 pages, $24.95
Tombolo Books present a virtual launch party featuring Tyler Gillespie (The Thing About Florida) and Gale Massey (Rising and Other Stories) at 6:30 p.m. April 15. Register at tombolobooks.com/?q=h.calevents.