Author Tim Dorsey’s latest novel is weird, wild and wonderful, a continuation of his brand of Florida picked straight from the headlines.
There are two versions of Florida. One consists of picturesque sunsets, sugar-sanded beaches, theme parks and tranquil suburban retirement promulgated by tourism bureaus and commercial advertisers.
The other is a near-apocalyptic mix of savage wildlife, ruthless grifters, con artists, disastrous weather and more historical trivia per square mile than you can wave a .44 magnum at.
This is the Florida of Tim Dorsey: weird, wild and unpredictable, but never boring. Though his writing style has drawn comparisons to Carl Hiaasen and Randy Wayne White, Dorsey’s frenetic pseudo-documentation stands alone in depth and scope, giving perhaps the most definitive look at the chaos and culture of the Sunshine State.
“Florida is just getting stranger and stranger,” Dorsey says. “It’s hilarious. [You think] ‘how long can we keep this up,’ but the weird news stories just keep coming at a faster and faster pace.”
Dorsey’s latest novel, Coconut Cowboy, is no exception — a surreal romp through small-town America blurring the line between fact, reality and true crime.
At the center of Dorsey’s saga is Serge Storms, a wanted serial killer whose mile-a-minute love of life and all things Florida is rivaled only by his propensity for creatively punishing every egomaniac, sadistic animal abuser or black-hearted career criminal he encounters.
Serge is Dorsey’s most colorful and enduring creation, a larger-than-life human dynamo whose marathon road trips up and down Florida propel his novels’ storylines. Aided by his perpetually drug-addled foil and sidekick, Coleman, Serge is the literary embodiment of Dorsey’s imagination, as much a fan and champion of Florida’s weird, forgotten past as he is protector of its memory from the erasure of time.
“With Serge, I use him for pretty much anything, because of the way he talks,” Dorsey says. “He’s always just really hyper and he rants and he says things that are inappropriate, but if I’m actually trying to get information in, if I’m trying to make a point, by having him do it in the midst of his craziness … Once I developed his character, I realized that I had a good way to get stuff in without slowing the book down.”
Coconut Cowboy begins where the 1969 film “Easy Rider” — Serge’s latest obsession — ended: Southeastern Louisiana. As Dorsey points out with typical aplomb, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda actually completed their quest to reach Florida “in search of the American Dream.”
“[Serge] wants to pick it up where they left off and finish it in real life, but he correctly points out that where they actually ended up getting killed at the climax of the movie was part of Florida at one time, because the Florida Panhandle went all the way over into those parishes in Louisiana,” Dorsey explains. “Even to this day, those seven parishes along the Panhandle are called the ‘Florida Parishes.’”
Serge’s quest to find the “American Dream” — or what’s left of it — takes him and Coleman deep into the heart of Florida, where they encounter everything from carjackers and Miami drug runners to secret rock festivals, long-lost icons of Americana and Ray Charles’ childhood home.
Mirrored in Dorsey’s ramble through small-town America (which Serge considers the last bastion of yesteryear’s family values) is the fictional town of Wobbly, Florida, a quaint but corrupt highway town hiding a terrible secret.
Though his novels are based on real life, sometimes the material is so ripe for the picking it’s hard to believe.
“This is absolutely true,” says Dorsey. “There was a state investigation about this one town and how it was keeping its books, collecting money from the citizens, and where the money is going, and they reported back to Tallahassee that one of the things the town leaders had said was ‘some of the records were lost in the swamp.’ That’s like ‘the dog ate my homework,’ y’know? So when I read that I said, ‘OK, it’s reached critical mass, I’ve got to write about that.’”
A graduate of Auburn University and former editor for the student newspaper The Plainsman, Dorsey worked as a police and court reporter for The Alabama Journal in Montgomery, Alabama, returning to his childhood home of Florida to work at The Tampa Tribune as reporter and night metro editor in 1987. Dorsey resigned from the Tribune in 1997 to write full-time, initiating a career that includes Cadillac Beach, Hammerhead Ranch Motel and nonfiction books like Florida Roadkill: A Survival Guide.
Since their initial publication, Dorsey’s novels have taken on a life of their own, renewing interest in forgotten sites and prompting conservation efforts to save and restore lost treasures or, in some instances, directly inspiring new events.
Near the finale of Florida Roadkill, as Serge and Coleman try to avoid demise by an angry mob, they unintentionally cause a stampede of out-of-work Hemingway lookalikes down Duval Street in Key West. Today, the world-famous Sloppy Joe’s bar there hosts everything from a half marathon and 5K to a paddleboard race and mock “running of the bulls” as part of the annual Hemingway Days.
“It’s funny because somebody sent me a photo … I guess it’s a new thing they do,” Dorsey says. “They had plywood cutout bulls and the ‘Hemingways’ just march down Duval with these cutout bulls. It’s practically right out of the book, but it was years after they first started doing the lookalike contest at Sloppy Joe’s [when they] started doing this other weird stuff.”
Fans have even created an open album on the photo-sharing site Flickr titled “Serge’s Tour of Florida” where they document their journeys retracing Serge (and Dorsey’s) steps, visiting hidden gems like Pier 66 in Fort Lauderdale, Tobacco Road and Club Deuce in Miami, the Seven Mile Grill in Key West and the Flora-Bama Bar in Perdido Key.
“I’ve made friends at a lot of these places and they’ll say, ‘Man, all these people have been coming by after your book came out, taking pictures and asking us questions and stuff.’ That’s probably the biggest complement I can get.”
Photo Credit: Tim Dorsey from www.timdorsey.com.
Dates and locations for Dorsey’s book tour are available on his website.