Long before the Internet had Florida Man to catalog the misdeeds of men and women in the Sunshine State, there was Carl Hiaasen. At last night’s John Malcolm Brinnin Memorial Event, entitled “The Florida Freak Show,” Hiaasen gave us a hilarious retelling of some of the news stories that serve as both blessing and curse for fiction writers trying to draw inspiration from their surroundings. Any writer, and especially anyone writing about crime, has “an embarrassment of riches,” here in Florida, Hiaasen said. At the same time, he pointed out, one must try to strike a balance between the outlandish and the plausible. Here in Florida, our news tends toward the outlandish, and as Hiaasen explained, it’s difficult to write stories that don’t eventually come true. And, should they come true, most fiction readers, let alone editors and publishers, would find most of our stories too strange for a work of fiction.
Hiaasen then launched into a list of Florida news stories, both recent and now-legendary, to illustrate his point, beginning with the disappearance of Key West Fire Chief Joseph “Bum” Farto—“a character no one could have created.”
More recently, there was the Broward woman (formerly a Broward man), arrested last year for doing unlicensed cosmetic surgery in people’s homes by injecting her clients’ rear ends with a mixture of Fix-A-Flat and rubber cement. “Creative as it might be,” Hiaasen wondered, “how do you put that in a novel?”
And then there was the story of a Miami-Dade man whose neighbors, suspicious that something strange was going in the man’s trailer, put in a call to the local game warden (not the police, Hiaasen noted). When the authorities arrived, they found the man bloody and pocked with bite marks, and two alligators beneath the sheets of his bed. The reptiles were removed for their own protection, but their former bed-mate then hired a lawyer to try (in vain) to get them back.
More stories of man and nature followed, such as a man in Mossy Head, FL, consorting with (and, it appears, somehow killing) a goat named Meg. According to Hiaasen, this case shed light on the fact there was actually no law on the books to prosecute Meg’s attacker, and a five-year process ensued to pass a law. A similar case followed in Ocala with a miniature donkey named Doodle.
And then of course, there were the stories of criminals who flee to the Keys, only to realize that there is, of course, one way in and one way out. In one case, upper Keys residents found out about the OJ-esque chase in progress and congregated along the roadsides to pelt to oncoming fugitive’s car with rocks, debris, and, in one case, a bicycle. The driver eventually dialed 911 himself, exclaimed “They’re trying to kill me!” and jumped from his car, only to be run over by it while trying to surrender.
Hiaasen had, it seemed, an inexhaustible list of bizarre Florida news stories, from the Miami Herald headline that read, “Two die in attempt to hijack sex plane,” to the former Florida Supreme Court Justice who was arrested for smuggling marijuana.; from the car burglar at the Miccosukee Casino who fled to the swamp and was eaten by an alligator (“In my books, the alligator usually wins,” Hiaasen said), to the flocks of doves released for weddings at Disneyworld, only to be devoured in mid-air by the red-tailed hawks displaced by the theme park’s construction, raining a shower of feathers and bones down on the newlyweds below.
Even if these stories are too strange, too outlandish to be turned into fiction, Hiaasen is still their storyteller, and we’re still fortunate to have him here, reminding us once again, of the state we’re in.
Nick Vagnoni teaches writing at Florida International University in Miami. He was born and raised in Key West.