What the freak? The flaws in Florida’s make-up


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Two shocking incidents have bought Florida to mind this week. We’ve felt the terror of those caught up in the Orlando nightclub mass shooting and the helplessness of a little boy snapped by an alligator at a Walt Disney resort. Both truly, truly awful.

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Source: Sun Sentinel

And far, far from our travel glossy view of Florida.  To us pasty faced Europeans, Florida is The Sunshine State;  1200 miles of bright white beaches fringed with swaying palms, the perfect place for a sultry sundowner.  Orlando, the theme park capital of the world, is a captivating place of elaborate fantasy and the honeypot that draws 90 million-plus visitors a year.  But Floriada as a whole more to offer – eco-adventures and wildlife expeditions as well as kayaking and cycling, fishing and golf. And for space fans, there’s NASA and the Kennedy Space Centre too. 23 things that make Florida great


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Source: National Geographic


And of course there are plenty of Americans who are drawn there too.  For them it’s like the happiest place on Earth— fun-filled family holidays or golden retirement years —or it’s a place to escape the rat-race and lose themselves in sunbaked anonymity. For all Floridians, young and old, sport is likely the dominant culture; as player and spectator.  It’s produced a few well-known musicians and actors; Debbie Harry, Sydney Poitier, Tom Petty, Faye Dunaway, Jim Morrison, Wesley Snipes are some of the names we are most likely to know. But it’s not really known for it’s world famous art output (Miami has a thriving artscene though) .

But there is a rather rich literary heritage to this place that has tapped into a Florida behind the neon-lit beach paradise to hint at an underbelly as scary and tangled as these recent news events. Those who have filmed or written about Florida have always known this – freaks, reptiles and hurricanes it was ever thus…

READ: Some of the best American Novelists have used Florida as a backdrop to examine inequality, racism, capitalism, exploitation and profligacy.

To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway (1937)

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No matter how a man alone ain’t got no bloody fucking chance.

Hemingway’s legendary hard drinking lifestyle was witnessed in Key West, his home from 1928. His love of fishing and boxing and Sloppy Joe’s the bar influenced this novel too. Here he created Harry Morgan, a family man forced into running contraband between Cuba and Key West to keep his crumbling finances afloat. His adventures lead him into the world of the wealthy and dissipated yachtsmen who throng the region, and involve him in a strange and unlikely love affair. Often cited as the most famous Florida novel. But it’s probably not the best. Apparently Hemingway didn’t like it much. (A very different context became the very famous film with Bogart and Bacall.)


Rabbit at Rest by John Updike (1990)

The Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom series has been hailed as the definitive fictional chronicle of the American middle class over the course of the 20th century. The series concludes with this Pulitzer-winner largely set in a Florida condo. Updike feeds Rabbit anxieties with those 1980 concerns that battered America (and especially Florida); AIDS, terrorism, financial disaster, addiction, racism and the unprecedented aging of the country’s largest generation. And it’s Updike, so the language is as ornate and gorgeous as Hemingway’s is sparse and mannered.


The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1936)

The Yearling may have also become more known by it’s film adaptation, but others claim this an American classic – and it won the Pulitzer. For some, this is a story for children about a child and his relationship with an orphaned fawn.  And yes, the yearling is a deer but more importantly, it’s also the story of a 12-year old boy caught right in that moment between an innocent childhood and a realization of the pain the world can dole out. It goes deeper too, explaining Florida’s complicated nature with the environment and how it was destroyed to make way for progress.  Rawlings also wrote semi-autobiographical Cross Creek.


Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1935)

Out of print for almost thirty years—due largely to initial audiences’ rejection of its strong black female protagonist—Hurston’s classic has since its 1978 reissue become perhaps the most widely read and highly acclaimed novel in the canon of African-American literature. Here the view of Florida is far from sunny. These are the lives of unvarnished and poor blacks, of race, injustice and gender inequality. But ultimately it’s a Southern love story with wit and pathos, all while making a case for compassion being an innate human attribute. (And includes probably literature’s greatest ever descriptions of a hurricane and its aftermath).


Arguably Florida’s most well known living novelist is Carl Hiassen.

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Born and raised in Florida and a graduate of the University of Florida, he has published 26 novels satirising the state he knows and loves.  Moral and political corruption and senseless environmental destruction permeate his work about Florida, served up with biting humour.  Florida has never failed to provide him with a rich seam of ideas for his books like Tourist Season .


Watch: The many faces of Florida are reflected in these film offerings. Like the novels the sunshine state provides a visual backdrop in sharp contrast to the ugly characters/lifestyles of these compelling stories.

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Scarface (1983). This look at Miami’s cocaine wars of the 1980s captures actor Al Pacino in a career- defining moment as kingpin Tony Montoya, and causes an uproar among Cuban exiles for its violent portrayal of the Mariel boatlift crisis.

The Truman Show (1998). Jim Carrey is an unwitting celebrity in this take on reality TV, beautifully filmed in Seaside. Is being trapped in paradise really so appealing?

Magic Mike (2012) Tampa’s Ybor City seedy night- life takes the spotlight in the form of practically naked Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey.

Monster (2001) Charleize Theron, one of Hollywood’s best looking woman, terrorizes the Orlando and Daytona scene as Aileen Wuornos, Florida’s worst female serial killer. A Best Actress Oscar went with this Florida film.

Rosewood (1997) – With scenes shot in Cedar Key and Eustis, this film captures the horror and fear of Florida’s worst racial conflict, even if plot has inaccuracies.


Listen:  Lucky for us too there’s a wealth of insights into Florida’s hinterland in audio land.

Letter from America by Alistair Cooke – The real Florida. Recorded in 1982 Cooke spotted Florida’s flaws long ago. Here he explains why the real Florida is not all it’s painted out to be. The sound quality on this recording is variable/poor.

Letter from America by Alistar Cooke – Hurricane Elena, 1985. Hurricane Elena’s path of destruction along the Florida coast, and the proposed raise in the legal drinking age from 18 or 19 to 21 in all but fifteen states.

Excess Baggage : The Dark Tourist – Florida. Sandi Toksvig explores deep under the skin of the ‘sunshine state’ in the company of the former British Vice Consul in Orlando Hugh Hunter, with a Florida postcard from Americana presenter Matt Frei.

WHAT THE CRIME?! PODCAST EP. 1: WHY IS FLORIDA SO WEIRD – exploring the weirder, wilder, more obscure side of crime. Because the truth really is stranger than fiction…


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Florida is complicated and complex: so suggests this reading of it’s literary heritage.  Some people say Florida is a state full of hopefuls—people hoping to realise a dream, an idea, or a lifestyle. Hopefully hope is a help to the 50 families badly hurting right now.


Further Reading:

The Guardian – List of books about Miami

Tampa Bay Times – 10 books about Florida for Floridians

Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators: More Stories about Real Florida (Florida History and Culture) by Jeff Klinkenberg. (2011) Celebrating some of the Sunshine State’s most distinctive personalities, Klinkenberg roams the state from panhandle to the keys, looking to answer the question, “What makes Florida Florida?”

It’s been 10 years since the last hurricane hit Florida.  The residents know the good run won’t last forever. Stormy Weather by Carl Hiaasen reminds of the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in South Florida and the resulting insurance scams, street fights, hunt for food and shelter, corrupt bureaucracy, ravaged environment and disaster tourists that disaster events bring in a modern world.

The Hemingway Project – “ . . . a great blend of journalism, history, and story telling. Wonderful reading!”