by Sarah Gerard
Published 2017 by Harper Perennial
$15.99 hardcover ISBN 978-0062434876
By Noah Sanders
The Florida of Sarah Gerard’s Sunshine State isn’t the one the West Coasters and Northerners of the world have much experience with. Oversaturated with media consumption, the Florida most people know is a kooky mélange of sunshine, citrus, oddball characters, alligators, swamps, a dash of Cubanos, a coastal manse here and there, and a slew of political scandals that we’ve all spent a few hours shaking our heads at. These exist in Sunshine State, atmospherically lingering on the periphery, but Gerard isn’t looking to further our stereotypes about the most southeastern of American states. The essays in her debut collection are small stories of Floridians in urban settings, seeking happiness, understanding even in the often times poisonous embrace of large-scale religion, business, drugs, and family. Gerard explores the bigger pictures inherent in the state, but does so through the lens of the individual, a motley community seeking to pull themselves from the gutters and achieve some semblance of happiness, of the American Dream. But, as Gerard asks of herself and her subjects, at what cost, and what sacrifice does our happiness come?
There’s always a bigger force pulling at the subjects of Gerard’s essays. In “Mother-Father God,” it’s Christian Science and the allure of its cheerful, supposed negativity-free community to Gerard’s own family. In “The Mayor of Williams Park,” it’s a homeless man-turned-charismatic preacher, who fights for improving the lives of those who live on the street, while battling his own dark demons. “Records” focuses on Gerard’s senior year in high school, where EDM, drugs, and sex create a dangerous umbrella the author narrowly escapes from underneath.
It’s the essay “Going Diamond” that hits the nail on the head the hardest. Gerard’s essay about her mom and dad’s brief, but deep involvement, with Amway, the international pyramid scheme owned by the multi-billionaire Devos Family. Amway presents a condensed, accessible version of the American dream to the Gerard family, one steeped in an overarching belief in America’s true god: Capitalism. To join the club of Amway, one must aspire to buy up and sell down, to achieve their wants and needs on the shoulders of those below, from the hand-me-downs of those above. Amway, often believed, rightly so, to be a large-scale pyramid scheme, offers the potential of monetary success—with all the gleaming trappings—with nothing more than your money and time as the entry fee. “In order for our dreams to feel real,” Gerard writes, “we had to construct them from material things.” The paper-thin life security Amway offers the Gerard family, and millions of others the world over, does not come without cost as the deeper they trod, the less of a family they become. It is America, and the false hope of the American Dream, laid bare: anyone can be a success, as long as you sacrifice yourself and your own ideals to achieve it. This is Gerard’s Sunshine State, a place where sad-eyed outcasts found solace in joining—a church, a social group, a noxious business—but lose themselves in the process.
Gerard is best known for her novels, and in Sunshine State, the strongest pieces are those that allow her to deep dive into lyrical descriptions. “Records” and “BFF” thrum with personal revelations, each carved from Gerard’s own painful experiences. Pulling from her own emotional center, these essays allow her a greater ability to paint scenes and characters through a more enjoyable, if potentially less factual sense. The more journalistic offerings of “Mother-Father God” or “The Mayor of Williams Park” never stumble, but drag slightly when Gerard is explaining, or dissecting the ins-and-outs of the Florida political machine or the history of Christian Science. Only “Sunshine State” —the strange, morbid tale of a bird sanctuary gone awry—combines Gerard’s knack for character description and pained confession with straight forward fact; her descriptions of the eccentric, obsessive Ralph Heath and his family and staff, deftly captures not only the living history of The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, but its squandered aspirations.
Florida, to many (this writer included), is a swampy mirage that dangles off a far coast. Its utterance invokes humidity and tropical drinks, elderly Jewish couples and dense swampland. In Sunshine State, this vision isn’t proven incorrect, just superficial, a thin mirage those who’ve called themselves residents, have concocted. Instead, Gerard shows us that though our stereotypes may sometimes ring true, bubbling beneath them is a population of people simply yearning for happiness, whatever it might take to achieve it. In this, Gerard shows that below the assumed eccentricities, Florida is just another place where the American Dream has failed.