Janis Owens, a novelist and folklorist, is author of “The Cracker Kitchen: A Cookbook in Celebration of Cornbread-Fed, Down Home Family Stories and Cuisine.” Her most recent novel is “American Ghost.”
I’m a native of Florida. Yes, the place where news of the weird seems to have been invented. In just the past two weeks: A woman in Ocala announced that she’s challenging the Guinness world record for longest tongue — at four-plus inches, with a YouTube video to verify the claim. And in Vero, adventuresome travelers in search of that perfect “Oz” vacation can rent an Airbnb room in the former Indian River Correctional Institution. They can sip lattes in the yard or sharpen a shiv whilst binge-watching “Downton Abbey.”
Among Floridians, this wackiness is almost a point of pride. In my case: I really was bitten by a brown recluse spider. We do own 20 lush acres so pockmarked by sinkholes that in the rainy season there’s the possibility that the sandy soil will spontaneously open and we’ll find ourselves dog paddling in the aquifer below. My father really did have two fingers chopped off in a childhood accident, and he kept them in a bottle of moonshine in the closet so he could “bury them with the rest of his mortal remains.” And when he died, I really did call my sister-in-law and tell her that we’d have to bury him without his fingers, because I couldn’t find them anywhere. I said it with exasperation and conscious irony, as it was true and it was weird, and that’s the way we like it here in Florida.
In his book “Oh, Florida!” Craig Pittman delivers a convincing case that Florida’s reputation for off-the-chain zaniness is not only historically accurate but an evolving carnival of delight. Pittman has deep roots in the state, and his joyous deconstruction is offered with the humor, zest and storytelling skill of a roomful of uncles telling tall tales at a family funeral.
Pittman’s modern Florida is a multicultural catch-all: a sunny refuge for the desperate and the desperately insane, who in every aspect of life, sooner or later, seem to let their freaky flags fly. The stories are loosely gathered into chapters (“The Gunshine State”; “Confederacy of Dunces”) and packed with all manner of hilarious factoids and unlikely anecdotes, taken straight out of local police blotters (“the fugitive was caught because he responded to people who were making fun of his wanted poster on the Pasco County Sheriff’s Facebook page.”)
Embedded in this roll call of insanity are brief, bright revisionist histories of all the usual suspects in official Florida history: fierce aboriginals, lost conquistadors, colorful but apparently mythic pirates in Tampa Bay. Pittman, a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times, doesn’t shy away from calling foul on the outright fabrications (too many to name) but for the most part seems to revel in the madness. Though he never strays far from his lust for the laughable, a good many lesser-known heroes emerge in Florida’s checkered past, including Robert Hayling, a black dentist in St. Augustine who instigated and survived one of the worst episodes in the history of U.S. civil rights, and John Gorrie, the seriously under-celebrated inventor of the air conditioner.
Pittman’s Florida is a hovering oasis of natural beauty, created by God but gilded by man for the pleasure of the tourist, the gawker, the desperate transplant, who come to the state with the expectation of a gonzo, one-of-a-kind experience. “Oh, Florida!” proves the state is still well up to the task.
By Craig Pittman
320 pp. $26.99