“Naked Came the Florida Man”: A Love Letter to Florida

From hurricanes that have folks shoot guns into them, to blind mosquitoes that “swarm in biblical numbers” and make people “keep [their mouths] closed unless [they] want extra protein,” Florida has a lot to offer that isn’t apparent from a glance at a map. Leave it to Tim Dorsey to shed light on the Sunshine State’s bounties and its seekers in his mystery novel Naked Came the Florida Man.

Spanning tourist spots like Cocoa Beach and low-key locales such as Pahokee, where small-town pride and “the fabric of the community [come] together like a Kevlar vest,” Naked Came the Florida Man follows Serge A. Storms, a Floridaphilic vagrant with a screw loose and chip on his shoulder about a modern society made “too fast-paced and jaded” to appreciate the simpler things in life. And the simpler things in life are what Serge treats himself to via a statewide road trip for a “fever pitch of heritage, lore and motel antics.”

With “no appointments, and a tank of gas” powering his Plymouth Satellite, Serge and his drug-addicted partner Coleman drive around the state paying visits to cemeteries and tributes to monuments honoring Florida’s past — like Zora Neale Hurston, the Okeechobee hurricane of 1928, and Mitzi the Dolphin — which help Serge stay connected to the Land of Flowers, “preserving local history and chronicling her times.” That history includes the urban myth surrounding a sugar baron’s hidden gold stash, coins that football-playing schoolgirl Chris and Johnny Walker-chugalugging salvage operator Cale Munson come across before coming across one another — and Serge.

Using his Floridian roots and journalistic chops from his Tampa Tribune days, Dorsey wastes no words poking fun at the state’s and American society’s follies through the lenses of his characters, kindred spirits in their love of arcane knowledge about Florida and how the universe operates — like how the sun bends time and space to create wormholes, and how screw worms burrow inside deer.

And like screw worms, the novel’s leads persevere in their quest for personal edification with the “supernatural powers of free-range thinking.” Serge drives around Lake Okeechobee, all 150 miles of “dynamically changing culture and landscape” to “recalibrate [his] sense of place.” Chris runs laps outside the Pahokee Blue Devils’ football field to join the team, annoying coach Lamar Calhoun before impressing him with her resolve and knowledge of “dark energy [being] the reason why gravity [wasn’t] slowing down the expansion of the big bang.” This gathering of insight underlines the thrill of embracing the research bug in a land that houses the modern world’s best — like Okeechobee townsfolk preserving historical murals — and worst.

When the worst rears its head, it does so through folks whose creativity’s limited to trampling upon others and anything around them falling outside the “New York–L.A. cultural axis.” Kids feed Alka-Seltzer to seagulls believing they’ll explode midair, making for an Instagram-worthy video courtesy of the kids’ uncle. An archconservative pastor not only pickets a military funeral that Serge attends, but also manipulates underage girls into satiating his sexual fantasies. Looking at a society weaned on material gains and “moving pieces of candy around on cell phones,” Dorsey exposes the fluff and rot that not only dull folks’ senses and conscience, but also cast a pall on the state with the idea of the Florida Man: “the maniac who’s raising hell all over the place.”

But for every troublemaker stumbled upon, a few gems cross the leads’ paths, revealing the “untapped reservoir of values and enlightenment” that spans Florida. Motel receptionist Cheyenne initially offers historical tidbits to Serge before transitioning to a more intimate form of room service, the kind best done in bed. The Pahokee Blue Devils, at first chary of Chris, later stand up to those harassing her during football games and insist on paying for diner meals to celebrate her triumphs on the field. The novel’s supporting — and supportive — cast contributes to the through line that the narrative and leads follow: to embrace the overlooked and misunderstood.

But as Dorsey delves deeper into Florida’s secrets and his characters’ intrepid minds, the book can lose sight of the narrative thread — the sugar baron’s gold stash myth — that connects the leads, whose paths don’t cross until the climax. The plot structure generally mirrors the characters’ chasing of fortunes left and right — like Munson combing the Treasure Coast for sunken ships full of lost treasures — yielding a pace that ebbs and flows like Serge’s itinerary.

It could be said that in his eschewing a clear-cut series of events, Dorsey lets his characters run wild to feed their imagination — and that of the reader’s — with Floridian facts and idiosyncratic pastimes. Like a chocolate fountain at Golden Corral that stands for “straight-shootin,’ salt-of-the-earth integrity,” a stream of delights and secrets in the Floridian soil awaits those veering away from “polite cocktail-party society.” In Serge’s words, “We must balance out relevance with non sequitur or The Man imprisons us in his plastic cage of linear thought.”

Both a love letter to and deconstruction of the Sunshine State in the same vein as the stories of Carl Hiaasen, Naked Came the Florida Man stands as a celebration of individuals going off the beaten path to find themselves (preferably not in trouble), one offering a bundle of laughs along the way. In a time when folks are more liable to fence themselves in literally and figuratively, Dorsey reminds readers of that famous quote by Mark Twain: “Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” And if one is to travel far and out of their comfort zone, it’d be hard to top doing so in a Plymouth Satellite and with a drug addict who feeds booze to domesticated ferrets and not-so-domesticated frogs.

Naked Came the Florida Man
By Tim Dorsey
William Morrow Paperbacks
Published December 8, 2020