Exploring the Absurdity and Tragic Comedy of Florida, A Misunderstood State

A couple of years ago while on a family road trip, my son Googled “Florida Man” along with his birthday and regaled us with the headline: “Florida Man caught on video dancing atop deputy’s cruiser: Man claimed he was threatened by vampires, authorities say.” We then killed time Googling all of our birthdays and laughing at the “absurdity and tragic comedy of Florida,” as Tyler Gillespie puts it in his new book, The Thing about Florida: Exploring a Misunderstood State.

Little did I know that these “Florida Man” headlines went viral in part because of how story ledes are written and because of Florida’s rather unique open public records policy. Moreover, prior to reading Gillespie’s book, I hadn’t given much thought to the fact that these stories are about — and affect the well-being of — real people with real problems.

One such story Gillespie describes is that of Floridian Rachel Hayes, who had an altercation with her grandmother that resulted in her being called a “granny beater.” An alcoholic, she now lives in a halfway house and is doing well. Hayes doesn’t blame Florida for her fall from grace but recognizes that “Florida life” may have played a role in her difficulties. She believes the state’s “year-round spring break atmosphere warped her sense of reality.”

Gillespie admits that a lot of the bad things people say about Florida are true, including its “long history of racism, homophobia, drug/human/animal trafficking, wealth inequality, political scandals, [and] notorious serial killers.” It’s not his intention to defend the state but instead to present “a version” of it that transcends the badness and transcends even the weird news on which the “Florida Man” stories are based.

The state, he says, is not “just Disney World or beaches or old people.” It’s more than its caricatures. The ten essays in The Thing about Florida are a mix of archival research, interviews, and personal history, and they are the result of what seems to be a literary walkabout in the state by the author. He calls what he does “participatory journalism,” and the term is apt.

As he sets out to understand what Florida means to Floridians, he introduces us to some colorful and very human characters, including Civil War reenactment enthusiasts, the owners of a gay campground for adults, alligator wrestlers, Burmese python hunters, and homophobic Florida street preachers.

I was particularly enthralled by Gillespie’s interactions with Tom Crutchfield, a member of Florida’s herpetology or “herp” community and a “true Florida Man,” according to the author. Tom was “someone who did something outlandish (smuggled endangered species), got arrested for it (several times), and became infamous (or, as he said, ‘Google me’).” When Crutchfield spoke with Gillespie, he could switch knowledgeably from “alligator penises to Buddhist philosophy to climate change.” In response to the author’s fear of snakes, Crutchfield told him that he needed to see the world from the snakes’ point-of-view. “All we are — we’re just fucking talking apes riding around on an organic spaceship. Nothing more, nothing less.” It struck me that Crutchfield’s story was very much the story of Florida told in microcosm.

The essays need not be read in order and work as stand-alone pieces. Three of them address Floridians’ inordinate fondness for reptiles. My favorite essay in the collection is “Florida Man Theory.” When I reached the final essay, “A Revelation,” I expected Gillespie to tie the essays together thematically, thereby revealing something about what he’d learned. Instead, he explored his roots as a gay Christian — interesting in their own right. But it’s the reader’s job to make his or her own conclusions about Florida after reading what’s on offer here.

Gillespie is a poet and award-winning journalist. He is the author of Florida Man: Poems, and his work has appeared in GQ, the Guardian, the Nation, VICE, and Salon. He is a fifth-generation Floridian and obviously knows his home state — or, should I say, states? On the one hand, Florida seems to be singular, a thing apart, but on the other hand there seem to be “many Floridas.” Who knows? You decide.

The Thing about Florida: Exploring a Misunderstood State
By Tyler Gillespie
University Press of Florida
Published April 13, 2021