In the summer of 2016, Kent Russell—broke, at loose ends, hungry for adventure—set off to walk across Florida. Mythic, superficial, soaked in contradictions, maligned by cultural elites, segregated from the South, and literally vanishing into the sea, Florida seemed to Russell to embody America's divided soul.
To try to understand this most incomprehensible state, we need varied and probing narratives, ones that change as Florida changes and are told by people who love the state too deeply to refrain from blistering criticism. Into this role steps the native South Floridian memoirist Kent Russell with his sharp, brilliant, mean, and exasperating hybrid book ... By exasperating, I mean that I’ve never read an account of our gorgeous and messed-up state that is a more appropriate match of form and function. Russell’s book is a braid of diverse strands that shouldn’t work together and yet do ... Russell excels at...delightful nutshell histories, many of which involve a measure of both peril and con-artistry. The backstories of air-conditioning, hurricanes, orange cultivation, Walt Disney, and Miami, in Russell’s telling, all feature some element of wildly ambitious delusion and/or a hair’s-breadth escape from disaster ... Russell is at his best when he offers cultural commentary, dropping his gonzo persona and becoming wickedly insightful ... What undergirds Russell’s narrative of Florida is despair as invisible, dark, and pervasive as the limestone bedrock that sits beneath the state. To me, this feels like both the real and the true story of Florida ... As Russell puts it in his hilarious gut punch of a book—a book that anyone who is interested in not only Florida, but the whole country, should read—'How long before a society of atomized individuals rightfully following only their desires, heedless of what they owe others, destroys itself?'
In his off-kilter adventure story/cultural history In the Land of Good Living, Kent Russell says he doesn't want to pander to those who filter their ideas of the Sunshine State through the absurdist lens of Florida Man memes. Yet he seldom seems to be more generous in his portrayal of his fellow Floridians ... Russell's writing is unfailingly descriptive and engaging when portraying scenes from Florida history ... a buddy movie narrative develops that is a counterbalance to the more serious questions about social realities discovered along the way ... If Florida is indeed the land of good living, then its goodness is particular and individual. Russell's narrative, with film scenes and dialog spliced in, is an engaging adventure of the strangeness of both Florida and its people.
... it is wildly uneven—with flashes of brilliance that are too often bogged down by half-baked analysis, clunky mega-words and, most disappointing of all, muddy writing ... Russell is especially good at thumbnail historical sketches of the avarice and chicanery that made Florida possible ... Along the way we meet some engaging characters ... These people go beyond being merely colorful, all the way to perceptive and, frequently, insightful. They’re also a reminder that Russell is at his best when he gets out of his own skull and does what good reporters do: he listens. Less successful are Russell’s attempts to analyze What Florida Means ... the writing is frequently fuzzy and imprecise ... At its best moments, In the Land of Good Living is a reminder of the walking narrative’s chief virtue: it allows a writer to pass through ever-changing worlds, observing and absorbing at a leisurely pace ... In the end, Russell does arrive at some sharp insights ... I’m not giving up on...Russell because of one uneven book.