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RSW Living Magazine

The Florida Muck: A Gonzo Look at the Sunshine State

Could there be a place more conducive to the gonzo-style journalism of the late Hunter S. Thompson than Florida? Somehow, Thompson himself never fully embraced the Sunshine State, but, fortunately, Kent Russell has picked up the ball with his recently published book, In the Land of Good Living.

While Thompson toyed with parts of Florida—most notably the hedonism of Palm Beach—Russell drills down deep into the state’s muck, and like the gonzo journalists before him, holds back nothing. His schtick for this book is to walk the state à la Lawton Chiles, who was known for campaigning on foot from Pensacola to Key West during his successful 1970 bid for the U.S. Senate.

Russell recruits two buddies—Noah, a former Marine; and Glenn, a filmmaker—to accompany him and document their arduous 1,000-mile journey from the Panhandle to Russell’s hometown of Coconut Grove. 

Russell prepares his friends, particularly the Canadian Glenn, by telling them what to expect: “The deal with Florida is the charlatans and lunatics and Snapchat-famous plastic surgeons. It is the Ponzi schemes, the Byzantine corruption, the evangelical fervor, and the consenting-adult depravity. It is the seasonless climate. The lack of historical consciousness. The way in which this nation’s unctuous elements tend to trickle down as though Florida were the grease trap under America’s George Foreman grill.” 

The trio wanders its way through Apalachicola, “still charming” despite the disappearance of its oyster lifeline; east toward Jacksonville, where a hurricane is threatening to deliver an upper cut; back to Cassadaga, home to an eclectic collection of Spiritualists proselytizing to all comers; on to the mix of citrus groves and theme parks that define Central Florida; then a stroll through Southwest Florida’s Golden Gate Estates with a none-too-flattering assessment of the swampland-turned-subdivision and its predecessor up the road, Cape Coral; and finally across Tamiami Trail where the journey ends in Miami, a bastion of relentless optimism set against the doomsday forecast of rising seas. 

The three travelers trudge through all these hot spots, and everything in between, making friends (or not) along the way: Captain Dale, the 77-year-old, highly weaponized alligator wrangler in Carrabelle; the New York real estate broker turned spiritual medium turned Florida real estate broker; the ex-junkie wannabe Jesus at Orlando’s Holy Land Experience; Tampa strip-club kingpin Joe Redner; and even a Florida panther, which provides Russell with a near-religious experience in the wild, where Golden Gate Estates starts to morph into the Everglades.

Russell is brutally honest in describing his home state, which he seems both to love for its eccentricities and to question for its very existence. “Whatever the real once was—it has been superseded,” he writes. “Most everything on this peninsula is destined to reappear as simulation. That’s our lone industry: transforming Florida into ‘Florida’.”

In the Land of Good Living is the latest attempt by a Florida author to make sense of the place. Many have tried before—the subject is just too good to resist. Russell’s gonzo take is right on point—and highly entertaining.