‘Sunshine State’ examines life through prism of Florida’s weirdness

8 essays balance personal reflection, scholarly research


Sarah Gerard’s “Sunshine State” uses the place she grew up as the backdrop for eight succinct essays. That tactic — using a familiar geography to loosely tie together otherwise independent tales— isn’t an entirely novel concept;

Michael Knight employed it recently with “Eveningland,” a collection of seven fictional stories based in Alabama. But the stories in Gerard’s follow-up to her breakout novel, “Binary Star,” are all terribly true and scholarly researched. There are about 50 combined pages of bibliography and endnotes to prove it.

The distinct nature of Florida and its undeniable, magnetic weirdness shines through somewhere in each essay. Yet, despite its title, that enigma of a state isn’t the focus. Gerard takes a magnifying glass to powerful characters, herself included, and the underlying truths she unravels could apply to any number of Americans. The reader becomes invested in the characters’ lives, at times torn between empathy and disdain, but nonetheless needing to know what becomes of them.

There’s the formerly homeless minister who misappropriates money during drug relapses. A disorientated bird rehabilitator with a pure heart. A 30-something woman who still mourns losing her childhood best friend over irreconcilable differences.

Each story has a personal connection to the author, but there’s a welcome balance between stories about Gerard’s life and those in which she mainly serves as the messenger. The book opens with what could be a long diary entry, “BFF.” It outlines a destructively intimate friendship — the kind that only develops between prepubescent girls growing up together like sisters — gone south: “You’re the only woman I’ve loved this way: enough to want to hurt you.” Here, as in the essay “Records,” Gerard spills vexing details about her teenage years.

“Records” begins with Gerard meeting a 17-year-old, vinyl-spinning DJ over a cigarette during her senior year in “an arts magnet program designed to bring white kids into a black neighborhood.” She and the DJ meet Sean, who becomes their “main drug connect,” thus setting into motion Gerard’s “year of living dangerously.”

She balances music recitals with doing drugs at house parties with friends and older men, like the one who works at the movie theater, keeps “a menagerie of reptiles in tanks next to his bongs” and “really like pills.”

The early excitement of the parties and wide-ranging sexual encounters devolves into increasing despair. “Records” secures the feeling of a place and time — Florida and the early 2000s — not unlike the way “Dazed and Confused” does for Texas and the mid-‘70s. “Smoking weed is a way of keeping time,” Gerard writes. “It’s a ritual that marks the end of one state of being and the start of another: separateness, togetherness; stillness, goingness.”

These reflective stories are juxtaposed with research-based ones like “The Mayor of Williams Park,” an investigative look at chronic homelessness in St. Petersburg. The author immerses herself into the lives of her subjects, inviting the reader alongside her. Facts and figures from government agencies seem unnecessary next to colorful depictions of struggling veterans and the life story of G.W. Rolle. G.W. was 17 when he helped rob a drug dealer in New York City and wound up serving five years in prison for manslaughter. He began writing in jail, went to college, got off the streets in 2006 and became an ordained minister.

Wanting to write a story about G.W., Gerard starts volunteering with him. As his weekly breakfast for the homeless begins to lose funding, he comes to confide in her, revealing details about his drug relapses and health issues. She worries but refuses to give him money to cover his destructive behavior. With seemingly unabated optimism, he checks in to ask her if she’s been writing. In a way only possible via friendship, Gerard conveys G.W.’s complex layers.

The title essay, “Sunshine State,” chronicles the fascinating and controversial goings-on at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores. The author arrives there simply wanting to write an essay about birds, but it soon becomes apparent that things are amiss. The sanctuary’s co-founder, whose second marriage is to “Beatrice Busch, millionaire Anheuser-Busch heiress, wildlife photojournalist, and world traveler,” is a “slovenly, beer-gutted man” in his 70s with mounting family, money and government problems. The story of his obsession with birds is unforgettable.

Cut to “Mother-Father God,” which examines human nature through the lens of family experiences. It uses her parents’ involvement with Unity-Clearwater Church to dissect both her parents’ relationship (her mother was abused by her first husband; both her parents dealt with substance abuse) and the history of Christian Science, tracing its roots all the way back to the 19th century.

“Going Diamond” is similar in that Gerard recalls how her parents joined Amway, a multilevel marketing campaign, which some consider a pyramid scheme, when she was 7. Sections of this essay are “fictionalized composite accounts.” These parts, in which a couple is mansion-hunting after reaching Amway’s exclusive “Diamond” status, seem to clash with the rest of the collection. Another family-focused essay, “Rabbit,” touches on mortality as shown through her grandparents; it’s a story that feels obligatory but nonetheless heart-wrenching.

The book closes with “Before: An Inventory,” a poetic stream of consciousness written on the occasion of Gerard’s 30th birthday. It appears to mark time by noting the animals that appeared in each year of her life: “Bunny in a hoarder’s house, red-eared slider in the street, spiders at the kids’ museum…” It’s a total departure from everything else, demonstrating Gerard’s impressive creative range.

NONFICTION

‘Sunshine State’

By Sarah Gerard

Harper Perennial

$15.99, 384 pages

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