Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard (HarperCollins, 2017)
Reviewed by Brenna McPeek
Sarah Gerard’s collection of essays Sunshine State reads as an ode to the living, breathing juxtaposition that is the state of Florida. In her essays (some personal, some journalistic, some a hybrid of the two) she has her authorial finger on the pulse of the people who live there. She manages to trace the dreams the state breeds, but also pokes holes in these dreams effortlessly and gorgeously, revealing in the process imperfect portraits of humanity trying its best to grapple with The American Dream. Sunshine State may focus solely on Florida, but the quests at the core of Gerard’s essays reach beyond state borders. Be they quests for human connection, religious fulfillment, shelter or self-discovery, Gerard uses Florida as the stage for the human search for meaning.
The collection opens with “BFF,” an essay that explores a doomed friendship from Gerard’s adolescence. She introduces the power dynamic of the relationship through the perfect image of a tattoo told in two parts: “Forever / & Ever” printed so that the tattoos “linked our right and left hips together in a single message.” In her essays, Gerard is an expert at manipulating the seemingly perfect or whole by shining a light on the underbellies of her essays’ subjects. In “BFF” she examines the controlling friendship and sad future of the owner of the other half of that tattoo. In “Mother-Father God” and “Going Diamond” she dissects the hypocrisy and flimsy promises of New Thought religion and the Amway Corporation—two fads her parents had invested in during her childhood in the hopes of finding something to believe or find comfort in. Most of Gerard’s essays explore this human need for comfort or purpose, whether sought after in meaningful relationships, physical places, material possessions or ethereal ideals. Gerard believes in the quest for these comforts, but not in the comforts themselves. She reveals their imperfections by digging into details as only a true journalist can—and Gerard is a very talented journalist. She excavates facts and interviews and relays them to the reader in great detail. Sometimes, she has a frustrating tendency to overdo it on this front — in a few essays she uses videos her subjects have appeared in as evidence and describes the content of the videos to the reader in great detail. The experience of reading these descriptions feels a bit cheap—like listening to someone reenact a film for you. Ultimately, we allow it however, because such cut and dry material is a means to an end for Gerard. Her driving passion in these essays is to dissect the hopes and dreams of her subjects by any means necessary.
Gerard is interested in the idea of the genuine, the whole, the real thing—that indelible American Dream. Yet, she is equally interested in outing the imposters and proving that many that hawk the American Dream to others are not all they claim to be. In “Mother-Father-God,” a meditation on her parents’ brief involvement in the Unity church, she inspects the names of New Thought affirmations, such as “An Automobile Blessing,” or “A Salesman’s Prayer,” pointing out the mundane humor in a practice meant to be sacred. In “The Mayor of Williams Park,” her essay on the homeless problem in Florida, she looks into an initiative meant to solve the state’s shelter problem—the ironically titled “Eden Village,” which, in reality, consists of “clusters of tiny houses under five hundred square feet apiece.” Gerard cleverly plays with the duality of these initiatives, never quite letting them be the fulfilling things they are intended to be. But at the same time, this makes us wonder: isn’t their cloying imperfection what makes them so perfectly human?
Gerard’s strongest essays are the ones that speak from the heart, like the opening “BFF” or “Records,” a meditative essay on her senior year in high school spent studying music and behaving badly. It floats on like a haunting melody or an ecstasy trip. In it, she talks of past friends and their dualities (“Ashley isn’t a slut, but she embraces the bad-girl persona”) and explores the duality within her young self. This past version of herself acts and makes choices without truly understanding why—something she still can’t understand as an adult looking back. She says in the essay:
“At the theater—in general—we collect friends. Not friends with common interests, but friends whose common ground is an overall lack of interests. They’re simply around, gathering in empty spaces like dirt swept into sidewalk cracks.”
All the characters in Gerard’s collection feel like this: simply around. But as their caring, critical storyteller, she collects them, tells their stories. In doing so, she gives us an imperfect picture of an imperfect state full of people all yearning for the ideal of fulfillment. She both critiques and loves her home state. This much is evident by how she writes about something as mundane as the weather:
“Morning storms in Florida are a special kind of sign, a reminder that you’re trespassing on Mother Nature’s turf—that everything you know could be washed away in an instant.”
The essays in Sunshine State all focus on the fleeting—be it a friendship, a home or a belief. But together, these fleeting flashes of purpose remain to build a memory; to build a state full of dreams.