Florida box turtles and Florida raves, subdivision sprawl and seacoast gulls spread like the longview of a Golf Coast horizon across the 300 pages of Sarah Gerard's book of essays, Sunshine State, an ode to the many faces of her home state. This is Gerard's sophomore effort (excluding some chapbooks), and in it, she continues to utilize what was a trademark in her debut novel, Binary Star; that is, the dizzying toggle between internal landscapes and external forces; the shift between the poetic and the starkly unsentimental. In Sunshine State, that lack of sentimentality doesn't mean the essays are without power, it is instead, a testament to her diligence as a journalist. Equal parts memoir and earnest reporting, these essays are smart without sacrificing any soul.
In precise, often to-the-point language, Gerard tackles a multitude of subjects with the same authorial zeal. In “Going Diamond” she examines a pyramid scheme that her parents bought into when she was a child, deftly weaving memory with research to evoke a vapid kind of “success tourism.” The company was Amway, co-founded by Rich DeVos (the current Secretary of Education's father-in-law), and as such, it makes for a timely essay that tears down the prevailing myths that equate poverty to personal failure—a perfect melding of the personal and political.
Gerard also turns inward, and this is perhaps where her writing has the most impact while losing none of its far-reaching implications. In “Records,” she chronicles her teenage years going to hardcore shows and using a lot of drugs. In her remembrances of friendship, romances and parties, she is very vulnerable, yet there is, again, some social commentary here. Gerard's teenage boyfriend, Jarod, “smokes weed as a way of keeping time,” whereas for Gerard, who is of a higher socio-economic strata, this is a phase. Jarod never escapes it. She has the means and the support to escape that environment, while she watches those she leaves behind become consumed by it.
A standout comes in the titular essay, “Sunshine State.” In it, she describes, “I thought I'd write an essay about birds. In a lightly magical way, I'd begun to notice them all around me.” She finds a fledgling pigeon on a Brooklyn sidewalk and takes it to safety. Her interest deepens. “I felt I was on the trail of something ancient,” she writes. And that leads her to the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, a Florida nonprofit that has been plagued by rumors of scandal, theft and all manner of malignancy dragged on by the lunacy of founder Ralph Heath. Again, the focus shifts back and forth between thoroughly researched and reported journalism and the wealth of personal insight after months spent at the sanctuary as a volunteer. It makes for a fascinating read that evokes both personal landscapes and the external geography in language that is doled out skillfully; Gerard knows when to hold back and when it will be most biting to inject the scene with poetry.
Gerard grew up in Clearwater, on the Florida Cape outside of Tampa. Now living in New York, she is able to apply some hard-won perspective to the social, economic, political and personal terrain of her home state, though the subjects bear weight for us all. Sunshine State, a book of memoir and reportage braided together, punctuated by the shock of sudden storms and summer heat, has the power to unmoor. Gerard will steadily sweep the reader out to sea with her through passages that, in waves, pull us into a world that exists far from us, yes, but here, too.