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Take a ride with Paul Wilborn’s ‘Florida Hustle’

From a Palm Beach mansion to a horror-movie set in the Everglades, a runaway teenager, a daughter of immigrants and an aging con man chase their dreams.
Paul Wilborn's new novel is "Florida Hustle."
Paul Wilborn's new novel is "Florida Hustle." [ Photo: Courtesy Mary Rachel Quinn. ]
Published Jun. 9

It’s a classic road trip story: a young man’s quest for freedom, independence and the love of the star of straight-to-video horror films known for her ear-piercing scream.

Hey, it’s Florida.

“Florida Hustle” is the first novel from St. Petersburg author Paul Wilborn. A former reporter for the then-St. Petersburg Times, the Tampa Tribune and other publications, he’s also a musician and playwright.

His day job is running the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg, but lately he’s trying his hand at fiction, with resounding success. Wilborn has lived in and observed Florida in all its weird glory for most of his life, and it shows.

Wilborn’s first book, “Cigar City: Tales From a 1980s Creative Ghetto,” published in 2020, is a collection of short stories that grew out of his experiences living and hanging out in Ybor City in the 1980s. “Florida Hustle” shares the same historical era but moves to the other side of the state: Palm Beach, West Palm Beach and the Everglades in 1982.

Related: Read an interview with Paul Wilborn about "Cigar City."

You might think 17-year-old Michael Donnelly has it made, living in a waterfront Palm Beach mansion. But he’s a sad and lonely kid, still traumatized by his mother’s suicide and largely friendless because he’s been home-schooled.

The only joy in his life is horror movies. He’s especially obsessed by the films of legendary Italian director Mario Bava — and by Dawn Karston.

Dawn has starred in a string of very, very low-budget slasher movies, struggling to build a career on that eardrum-shredding scream and a smile “that had launched so many teenagers on ill-fated trips to old campsites, or high school football fields, or deserted soda shops where masked killers lurked.”

Michael’s dream is to become a filmmaker, and he believes he can raise Dawn’s career to a new level — he has a million movie ideas, if only he could tell her about them. He spends much of his time drawing storyboards for his potential movies, all of them culminating in a raised knife and Dawn’s scream.

When he hears that she’s making a movie in the Everglades, he’s thrilled. It’s his chance to connect.

But Michael’s father, Alex, is not thrilled. He’s the amiable figurehead CEO of a successful avionics corporation founded by his father, so his family’s public image is important. And just six months before “Florida Hustle” begins, a young man named John Hinckley had shot then-President Ronald Reagan and three other people — because he was obsessed with movie star Jodie Foster.

Disturbed by the storyboards and Michael’s fixation on Dawn, Alex decides to send Michael off for a stay in a treatment center called Palmdale Haven. When Michael gets wind of that plan, he runs away, crossing the Flagler Bridge from posh Palm Beach to the very different environs of West Palm Beach and holing up in a decrepit motel called the Blue Marlin.

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While he’s trying to come up with a plan for making his way to the Everglades movie set, he meets the lovely Lola Fernandez Famosa, a young woman with big dreams of her own. The daughter of Cuban immigrants, she’s certain she can make her fortune selling high-end cleaning products in a multilevel marketing company — and recruiting other salespeople, who will pay her a cut.

For the moment, she’s also a sex worker, but just as a way to build up a nest egg. And that little baggie of white powder in her purse? Just a way to relax. Fortunately her drug dealer is a clean freak, happy to trade powder for furniture polish. (He does have an annoying habit of pointing out the similarities between his business model and hers, but whatever.)

Michael meets Lola because she’s the girlfriend of his neighbor at the Blue Marlin, a dazzling presence named Cavanaugh Reilly. Cavanaugh has the looks and bearing of an aging movie star, loads of charm and mad storytelling skills. He’s also an alcoholic and a compulsive gambler; several decades before, he abandoned his young family and a promising career in politics in Georgia and took to the road.

Cavanaugh is a con man. Thanks to his vices, he’s perpetually broke, but he can always make another play, like talking a runaway boy with a fistful of his daddy’s cash and credit cards into taking him out to dinner at a fancy steakhouse — and promising him, in the name of love, to help him get to the Everglades.

Cavanaugh would never call himself a thief, but he certainly steals this book. Based on a real Tampa resident Wilborn wrote about in his column for the Times, he’s a fascinating character, by turns funny and wise and heartbreaking.

The trio take to the road, but they’re not alone. Michael’s father has hired a detective who’s soon hot on their trail. Then there’s the mysterious woman in the station wagon, who seems to be following them, too.

The route to the Everglades includes a stop at the very odd and slightly creepy Cypress Knee Museum and Motel as well as another at Chief Bobby’s Seminole Indian Resort and Casino. For the moment, Chief Bobby’s is just a dinky cinder-block motel with a poker game going in the back room, but there’s a rendering of a “sleekly modern hotel and casino” on display in the lobby, “Coming — Winter 1984.” And Chief Bobby is already honing an essential skill for a casino owner: relieving gamblers of their cash.

There are also encounters with bikers and a hungry gator along the way, and shifting alliances among the trio of travelers. It’s not exactly the way he imagined it, but Michael will finally hear Dawn scream in person.

In “Florida Hustle,” Wilborn delivers another warmly weird adventure in the Sunshine State with humor and heart.

Florida Hustle

By Paul Wilborn

St. Petersburg Press, 310 pages, $19.95

Meet the author

Tombolo Books presents Florida Hustle: An Evening With Paul Wilborn, with special guest Craig Pittman, at 7 p.m. June 14 at Seven C Music, 535 22nd St. S, St, Petersburg. Tickets $19.95 for one admission and one copy of the book, $25 for two admissions and one copy, at tombolobooks.com/.

Wilborn will discuss and sign “Florida Hustle” at 3:30 p.m. June 19 at the Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. Tickets $5 for admission, $19.95 for admission plus signed copy of the book.

Wilborn will read from and sign “Florida Hustle,” followed by a showing of one of the horror-movie classics from the pages of the book, at 7 p.m. June 22 at Green Light Cinema, 221 Second Ave. N, St. Petersburg. Tickets $8.56.

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