Tim Dorsey hauls himself behind the wheel of an old, dirty, scratched-up Lincoln Town car that would look at home at a down-at-the-heels retirement village.
The air conditioner has quit, a few none-too-clean tropical shirts hang precariously from hangers in the back while various papers and what look like rags populate the front seat.
One is a filthy pillow to cradle his right arm on the center console during long book tour drives around the state; the other an equally repellent towel that cushions his accelerator knee.
It must be said: It’s a car Serge would love.
Dorsey, 57, muscles the massive vehicle onto Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach, heading north to his old hometown of Riviera Beach, where he has set much of his latest book, “The Pope of Palm Beach.”
Dorsey, for those ignorant of the comic Florida novel genre, is the creator and sometime alter ego of one Serge A. Storms, inventive dispatcher of deserving bad guys, irrepressible collector of Florida arcana and a stream-of-consciousness-spewing, road-tripping Sunshine State star of 20 of Dorsey’s novels, accompanied by his foil, the habitually-baked sidekick, Coleman.
Think of Twitter’s #FloridaMan feed come to life for an idea of the mayhem Dorsey unleashes on his characters, much of it inspired by actual events.
In fact, the opening of his Palm Beach book starts with the true story of the Jupiter man who tossed a live gator through the drive-thru of a Royal Palm Beach Wendy’s in 2015.
“Thus continued the Florida epoch of (expletive) lifestyle decisions,” writes Dorsey, who seems both exasperated and perversely proud of the nutcase creativity of Florida criminals.
Is it any surprise that his books are popular in the state’s prisons, among both inmates and guards?
Despite the title of his latest Serge adventure, Dorsey, a former Catholic school boy, hasn’t gotten religion. The pope in the book is a fictional legendary surfer of the 1960s, during the years a beached freighter created a surf break off Singer Island so epic it launched the area’s surf culture.
“I wanted to do something special for the 20th Serge book,” said Dorsey, “so I wrote about Serge’s childhood, which was my childhood.”
Dorsey doesn’t drive so much as he sails north, piloting his wheeled barge around smaller cars like a boat captain dodging wave runners.
He has taken this pilgrimage to his past every second Tuesday in February for the past decade, the day after he appears at the Palm Beach County Library System’s Writers Live speakers’ series where fans sometimes gather to show him their Serge tattoos.
“People are obsessed with him,” said Chris Jankow, who organizes the writers’ appearances. “He has a rabid following, with people getting tattoos of images from the books’ cover art.”
Dorsey’s website displays photos of people with elaborate images from his novels indelibly etched on calves, biceps or backs. Several include one of Serge’s paeans to unshackled freedom, such as “A full tank of gas and no appointments,” and “I follow no one.”
The crowds at his book signings include urban retirees, self-professed Florida Crackers, guys who look like their Ultra-Glides are parked outside, women with neck ink and other fierce fans of the country’s wackiest state.
“There’s no common thread other than a sense of humor,” Dorsey says. “I would never argue that somebody would like my books because it’s a taste thing.”
In other words, the flavor might be overpowering for some.
He’s not so much interested in the current political strife of his old hometown, in which the FBI is looking into the city’s alleged spending misdeeds. For Dorsey, U.S. 1 is the path to his past.
“I’ve always loved this area,” Dorsey says, pointing out a former citrus packing house at the moribund corner of Blue Heron Boulevard and U.S. 1. He doesn’t see the peeling paint of the empty 1960s-era storefronts.
“I had a great childhood,” he says. “I just assumed everyone grew up like I did, as a subtropical Huck Finn.”
He remembers crossing the old, low bridge to Singer Island before it was replaced in the mid-’70s. He’s dismayed to see the more than 60-year-old Dairy Bell ice cream stand still closed.
“I used to ride my tricycle there with my mom,” he recalls.
The salt-washed nostalgia of growing up happy in what was a small beach town shows up in Serge’s passionate love of Florida and his cracked moral code that prompts him to concoct violent, imaginative murders of those who defile it.
Dorsey, who files away little-known tidbits of Florida’s history, its secret wonders and most egregious crimes, insists Serge’s righteous homicides are not transference.
“All the excessive exuberance about Florida and the whole Florida file thing is me,” said Dorsey. “The violence, that’s not me. I don’t get angry.”
Minutes later, he curses when another driver nearly pulls out in front of us.
Dorsey and Serge do share pet peeves.
Littering. People who stretch their adolescence into adulthood.
“Nobody’s mature anymore,” the author says. “They’re whiny.”
Take note. The creator of a serial killer hates rudeness.
We pull up at Wells Recreation Center. The late afternoon sun is drawing long shadows on the weathered baseball field.
“I just got a goosebumps feeling,” he says softly. “The summer of ‘74, I rode my bike every day over to this field where we played pickup baseball until we couldn’t see the ball at night.”
He sits down in the dugout. “It looks exactly the same. I think these are the same benches.”
He drives past his family’s first Riviera Beach home, on West 35th Street, where he and mother moved in 1962 when Dorsey was a year old, to live near his grandparents. Then, Riviera Beach was a mostly-white beach town full of Pratt-Whitney workers, like his grandfather. By the late ’60s, the city was being integrated. As black families moved in, white residents fled.
“My grandmother testified in court, maybe to the Justice Department, about real estate agents scaring people to sell their homes cheaply,” Dorsey says. “They pressured the whites to sell. They’d say, ‘As you can see, things are changing around here.’”
They moved to West 32nd Street about the time Dorsey became a Palm Beach Post paperboy. His route introduced him to all his neighbors.
“I grew up without a father,” he says. “I remember the black fathers in the neighborhood paying me every Thursday and giving me a tip to get a Slurpee.”
He was a science-obsessed kid who once asked for — and got — a soldering iron for Christmas. For a while, he became obsessed with cutting apart each day’s Palm Beach Post and gluing it back together to make his own paper, presaging his own journalism career.
“I remember the old masthead listing the paper’s awards: Ernie Pyle, Robert F. Kennedy and the Pulitzer. Back then, I expected to one day work for The Post,” said Dorsey.
Instead, he worked at Auburn University’s paper, then elsewhere in the South, before becoming a writer and editor at the former Tampa Tribune, where he met his wife. They have two college age daughters.
“I miss working in newsrooms, though. Newsrooms the way they used to be, not the way they are today,” he says, noting the corporate strip-mining of newspaper staffs across the country.
Whenever he had time, he drove up and down the peninsula on road trips, filing away notes about the sheer, sometimes maniacal oddness of Florida.
When his first novel, “Florida Roadkill,” was published in 1999, he quit the newspaper.
“I wasn’t afraid of quitting, I was afraid of not quitting. For me, it was go big or go home. I had to go all in,” he says.
Twenty Serge novels later, he finds Serge still has a lot to say about Florida, its glories and its goons.
We head across the Blue Heron Bridge to the Singer Island beach, where the title character of the book reigns as a Zen-like guru and surf god. It’s also where Dorsey as a kid hung out at the wide stretch of sand, near a string of funky Old Florida beach shops, long replaced by the cleaner but generic Ocean Walk Mall.
Dorsey sprinkles tidbits of local lore in his new book, name checking Trapper Nelson, the hermit of the Loxahatchee River who died in 1968; the old smoke stacks of the Port of Palm Beach power plant; Juno Beach’s sea turtles; the Peanut Man who used to sell nuts from a baby carriage at Old Dixie and Blue Heron Boulevard and the old rope swing on Peanut Island.
Dorsey also takes a swipe at cheapskate motel operators who use secret codes to prevent room air-conditioners from being set below 72.
During one of his long book tour jaunts, a motel manager refused his request to lower the temperature. Dorsey likes a cool room.
“The guy was like a ‘Seinfeld’ character, he was the A/C Nazi: ‘no more coolness for you.’”
Tim Dorsey, science fan and determined tinkerer, will not be denied.
“He wouldn’t give me the code so I got angry, then I got focused, with laser vision,” said Dorsey, who hacked the unit, then included the code sequence in his new book for everyone who likes sleeping in cold rooms and thwarting the world’s petty rule makers.
It’s precisely what Serge would have done.