The Dark Side of the Sunshine State
Sarah Gerard’s sophomore book explores homelessness, addiction, and going diamond in Florida
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Sarah Gerard’s experimental debut Binary Star made me uncomfortable, but I liked it. This “genius… novel-shaped poem,” as The New York Times Book Review describes it, features the internal monologue of an obsessive narrator with a debilitating eating disorder. The narrator tallies her regimen of coffee and other stimulants she consumes to quell hunger, along her boyfriends intake of pills and alcohol. This documentation is merged with musings about the universe, supernovas, and how some stars move so fast they burn themselves up into nothing. The constant shift between the micro and the macro is dizzying, and the tumbling of poetic clips is enough to make a reader breathless.
“[In Sunshine State] Gerard focuses […] on the personal versus the political.”
I didn’t know what to expect when I received a galley of Sunshine State, a book of essays about the author’s home state of Florida. Although Gerard’s sophomore book is wholly different in form, it features her trademark technique of toggling between the highly personal and the foreign. Instead of the self versus the universe, however, Gerard focuses instead on the personal versus the political. This makes for a text that’s disconcerting and uncomfortable in an entirely different way. The reader is presented with both universal phenomenon of lapsed high school friendships alongside the origins of Christian Science and the DeVos family’s role in politics. Gerard offers us personal essay and reportage side-by-side sans judgment or critique, leaving us to draw our own conclusions.
Where as Gerard backed away from memoir in Binary Star, saying in an Electric Literature interview that she was “very careful about how I treated [the characters] and who might feel exposed by this story,” Gerard now dives head first into an autobiographical account of addiction. In Records, she recounts her thrill and eventual disillusionment with drugs while her then boyfriend Jarod “smokes weed as a way of keeping time.” Eventually, sitting in a room full of drugged out, high school partygoers, she states, “It strikes me as I sit there soberly that this, this silly party, is the thing I’ve arranged to do with my evening. I wonder what else I could be doing.” Gerard is college bound, and drug binges are a phase. For Jarod, however, who is of a lower income background, drugs are both an attempt at escape as well as a financial asset. When Gerard travels from Brooklyn to Florida years later she meets up with Jarod, and learns that he has just gotten out of jail for dealing heroin. She describes her high school years as an unhealthy environment from which she has escaped, and something that others have been consumed by.
“In Gerard’s work, the body is made of star stuff.”
Gerard approaches addiction and substance abuse in an entirely different format in The Mayor of Williams Park, in which she interviews G.W. Rolle, a Missio Dei minister who runs a struggling free meal program for the homeless in St. Petersburg, Florida. G.W. describes Missio Dei as “an imperfect church of imperfect people inviting other imperfect people to find perfect love.” Gerard is transparent about G.W.’s imperfections: he has a history of substance abuse and has been to jail. While Gerard is following G.W., he relapses. Gerard writes that, “G.W. has never been clean in the twelve-step sense. He loves alcohol. He takes pain pills.” While cooking a church breakfast, he confides in Gerard that he’s met someone who has introduced him to crack.
G.W.’s philosophy of curing homelessness with patience and compassion stands in stark contrast with the government’s attempt to criminalize homelessness by making “activities associated with homelessness,” such as sleeping outdoors and loitering, illegal. Gerard reports that Robert Marburg, St. Petersburg governmental representative, “casts community residents as codependent enablers…with phrases like ‘Free food handouts and cash from panhandling… perpetuates and increases homelessness through enablement.’” Legislature argues that people must prove they are deserving of aid, while G.W. contests that people must be uplifted and work together to escape homelessness.
While The Mayor of Williams Park shows why conservative methodologies misguided, Gerard also addresses right wing ideology from a personal perspective. In Going Diamond, Gerard chronicles her parents’ participation in Amway when she was a child. Amway was co-founded by Rich DeVos (yes, that’s the current Secretary of Education’s husband), who created a system in which participants bought Amway products and then encouraged their “downline,” or their friends and family, to do the same. Gerard writes that, “Implicit in this [model] is that those who have failed have failed because they have not made the necessary sacrifices to succeed. These are poor people.” Counter to G.W.’s philosophy, to the free market capitalist, poverty is self-induced. Gerard goes on to explain that in 2010, Amway reached a settlement reportedly valued at $100 million in a California class action lawsuit filed in 2007. According to the lawsuit, the company was operating on a pyramid scheme. Amidst this historical account of Amway is Gerard’s experience attending Amway conventions, and how the ideology instilled in her a belief that “by the very fact of being me, I believed I deserved material things.”
Gerard’s juxtaposition of excessive wealth accrued by the DeVos family through a pyramid scheme, with people who are shamed for being born into a system of cyclical and engrained poverty is dizzying. She inserts herself into her stories in both highly personal ways and as a second party observer, leaving the reader with a map of her internal landscape as well as a Floridian topography. The combined effect is a bird’s eye view of the state at large. In Gerard’s work, the body is made of star stuff.
The personal is political.