Dave Barry Does the Unimaginable in an Exploration of the Sunshine State

by Jedd Beaudoin

16 February 2017

Tired of fielding questions about what's the matter with Florida, a treasured American humorist takes matters into his own hands and finds out for himself.
 
cover art

Best. State. Ever.: A Florida Man Defends His Homeland

Dave Barry

(G.P. Putnam's Sons)
US: Sep 2016

Dave Barry’s reputation as a leading American humorist remains intact. A Baby Boomer who taught elder newspapermen that his generation was as turned on to world events as any and would just as likely get their run-down of the day’s events from The New York Times (failing or otherwise *cough* Trump), The Wall Street Journal or The East Chico Bee as they would from High Times, The Great Speckled Bird or Ramparts. Humor, though, is a dangerous business. Today’s irreverence can become tomorrow’s howler from the church parking lot or golf course. Barry has somehow danced around the fate suffered by more than a few of his contemporaries. Now approaching 70, he reveals in the pages of Best. State. Ever. that he can still find plenty of absurdity, hyperbole and other rhetorical terms to flesh out his ideas.

More than just being funny, Barry is one of the rare talents who can sustain his humor for an entire book. Too often, cheeky quill dribblers stretch their funny stuff to the breaking point come the third chapter. Barry, on the other hand, finds enough depth within his subject to keep the laughs and observations rolling along. Is it comic or is it sad that there’s that much to laugh at about Florida? Both?

The state is Barry’s adopted home, a place he began visiting (with some trepidation) in the ‘80s at the height of the Cocaine Cowboys stuff. Bullet-riddled automobiles. Bloated banks. Just short of ten yards. All that. Like a captive who acquiesces to the lure of Stockholm Syndrome, Barry soon embraced the charms of the Sunshine State. It probably happened right around the time the rest of the country turned its back on Epcot, sunny beaches, and the intricacies of Lynyrd Skynyrd lore. Somehow that’s fitting.

The author suggests that Florida’s always just a little bit behind the times: Entering the Civil War long after the last shots were fired, coming into the last century a few years late because, well, that’s what Florida does best. The place has become the brunt of jokes, some of it stemming (as Barry will tell you) from the fiasco(s) of the 2000 US presidential election, though there were follies and foibles aplenty before then. There are some mysterious characters who occupy the highways, back roads, cities, counties, and towns of Florida and, in some ways, they are clinging to life. The roadside attractions meant to lure people into towns during an earlier time, when unhurried tourism was a moneymaker, provide keys to the state’s sometimes glacial nature, its tendency to hold on to those antiquated ways of life and the idea that maybe there will be something better coming with the next set of headlights.

That’s not peculiar to Florida, but Florida remains peculiar, so it’s fitting that Barry gets down to business and travels to some of the more remarkable points on the map.

Fans of the group Bright Eyes will delight at Barry’s exploration of Cassadaga, the small town that houses more mediums per capita than probably any other place in the world. (You might not be able to get a plumber on the weekend, the author tells us, but a tarot reading is never far away.) There’s a Spiritualist camp there and a medium named Judy (at least in the pages of this book) who Barry has a particularly predictable session with and a disembodied voice that seems to utter random commands to the author. (OK, that’s his GPS.)

Gatorland, a haven for troubled alligators, where dangling chicken carcasses over these formidable creatures provides oodles of entertainment, provides all the thrills you might expect (even while reading in the comfort of your own home). The Skunk Ape, a creature that emits a foul odor and was reportedly at the height of his powers in the ‘70s, gets some play too, the author interviewing a man who asserts that skeptics who claim this creature doesn’t exist should be cautious of their absurd beliefs.

No visit to Florida would be complete without a visit to a nightclub and in this case we’re taken straight into the heart of one such establishment, LIV. The DJs play their lovely prerecorded music that will put the boom boom boom in your zoom zoom zoom and vice-versa. A final chapter is dedicated to Key West. Here we travel to a mysterious locale, the Red Garter, where Barry gets in some of his funniest licks, including an admission that, yes, he did inhale.

The laughs are plentiful in these pages and Barry’s ability to rib and love his homeland plays to his greatest strengths. He excels at absurdity and it’s absurdity he finds in spades. There’s also something endearing, in its own way, about this strange and mysterious land, something that makes one want to get in the car and see the sights for themselves and maybe recoil in horror or, maybe, have another long laugh.

Best. State. Ever. is either Florida repellent or a travel guide. Maybe both. Barry is just the man to take us on the journey and, from this point forward, serve as a trusty companion.

Best. State. Ever.: A Florida Man Defends His Homeland

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