Review: Sarah Gerard – Sunshine State
Sarah Gerard’s essay collection Sunshine State is the most serious literary treatment of Pinellas and Tampa Bay since Sterling Watson’s Suitcase City, and it is mandatory reading for anyone who wants to understand the place better (I tore through the whole thing in a day and a half). Gerard, whose debut novel Binary Star was widely praised in 2015, is utterly unsentimental, and intermittently downright morose. But as the real-life stories she tells here make clear, sometimes that’s the rational response to life in our twisted little patch of paradise.
Gerard, born in Clearwater, mixes two different approaches in the collection. About half the work chronicles her adolescence and personal life, and the other half explores Pinellas more broadly. The autobiographical pieces are compelling, but it’s when Gerard turns her shadowed eyes outside of her own experience that Sunshine State grips you by the throat, sketching troubled people who reflect the duality of Florida’s beauty and darkness.
The title essay is the best in the book. It tells the story of Ralph Heath, the profoundly troubled founder of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary. It’s meticulously reported, with Gerard talking to almost everyone who was close to Heath as his unbalanced self-aggrandizement undermined his own noble creation. As for most of the rest of the book, Gerard keeps her voice understated, even minimal. But her empathy and curiosity shine through in the restrained ease of her interactions (incessant smoking is, apparently, an important part of her reporter’s toolbox).
Heath’s personal troubles, as much as anything I’ve read, capture the complexity of Floridian society. He’s a man nominally committed to nature and beauty – everyone around Heath tells Gerard that his devotion to birds is absolute. But his sun-battered body reflects a deeper set of wounds that keep him from living a life worthy of his devotions.
Also stellar is “The Mayor of Williams Park,” at its core a portrait of Pinellas homeless advocate and pastor G.W. Rolle. Rolle is the sort of figure who, if my experience is any indicator, is largely invisible to the average Pinellas resident, a man whose struggle to help the weakest of us gets short shrift in the local media and cultural landscape.
Gerard’s portrait is a celebration of Rolle’s ethos and tenacity in the face of regional indifference, and an exploration of the slow improvement in local approaches to homelessness. But it’s also an unflinching portrait of Rolle’s personal struggles, not shying away from his addiction and the lasting scars of his own time on the street. Gerard is, again, a masterful reporter here, developing a deep connection to Rolle and his mission, without descending into patronizing adulation (or, worse, self-congratulation).
Gerard’s tales of growing up in the Bay also reveal deep personal and social truths, as when her family indulges fantasies of fabulous wealth over a few years enthralled by Amway. Gerard the sharp-eyed reporter emerges again here, sketching both a cadre of strivers buying into a dream, and a higher strata of faux-sincere manipulators eager to sell it to them. There are serious real-world implications here – our new Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, paved her path to power with bricks from this psychologically manipulative pyramid scheme, which can’t help but reveal a great deal about our country’s current leadership.
Gerard’s only slight missteps come when she focuses on her own adolescence – treacherous territory for any writer. “Records” is a portrait of her frequently drugged-out high school posse, written in a distant, incantatory voice that’s true to the hopelessness of their (and her) mindsets and lifestyle choices. But the circular romantic wandering and nihilistic tripping didn’t give me much insight into the central, burning question – what set Gerard herself apart? Why is she now teaching writing in New York, while many of her high school friends are single parents, dealing drugs, ex-cons, stuck in place?
Gerard rightly acknowledges her class privilege, and there’s certainly some truth to the idea that moving to New Jersey for college kept her from languishing. But her first novel focused on her real-world struggles with eating disorders, addiction, and other forms of self-destruction, which outlasted that transition by quite a few years.
Gerard has dealt elsewhere with how she overcame those demons, but doing more of it here would have given Sunshine State a more satisfying arc. The book unflinchingly shows that there is some seed of self-destructiveness to the spirit of the Gulf Coast, something bred by sunshine and indifference that lurks just over the horizon of our eternal spring break. Florida, Gerard seems to think, still has a lot of growing up to do, and I would have loved to hear more about how she pulled that off herself.