I finished the book yesterday during a long afternoon spent in bed recovering from my illness. It was an especially fitting setting. The Great Fire is full of languid afternoons and young men beset by obscure diseases and weary from the war. I enjoyed the setting; the sense of war nearby, war recently ended and perhaps soon to be reignited. It was like a less bleary version of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises it also reminded me a lot of the film Casablanca, but maybe just because I happened to watch it around when I started reading the book. The book revolves around a couple of former soldiers, Aldred Leith and Peter Exley, who have been cast far and wide, to Japan and Hong Kong respectively, in the aftermath of World War II. They are surrounded on all sides by others, women and older folks, whose lives have been similarly touched by the war, and all of whom seem to be searching in vain for normalcy in the aftermath of shattering conflict. The central drama of the book concerns a budding love affair between Leith and a student of his, Helen Driscoll. Helen’s dull and menacing parents as well as the vast age difference between Aldred and Helen set up what turns out to be a fairly filmic love story. The chief drama for the reader lies both in wending one’s way through Hazzard’s elliptical, lyrical prose and in wondering whether or not the May – December romance will ever be consummated.
In Sexual Personae, a landmark work in the field of pseudo-intellectual posturing, Camille Paglia claims that Da Vinci carried the Mona Lisa with him everywhere he went. To DaVinci, the painting was more than just a pretty smile, it was a power object, an "apotropaion," a totem with the power to protect its bearer from harm. This sort of fetishization is hardly unique to Italian artists. Rather, it seems almost fundamental to human nature, perhaps even that which, in the final analysis, separates us from the animals. After all, what member of the animal kingdom would ever display the same unflagging devotion to an object as a child to its security blanket or would seek to define itself by its clothes? Perhaps the fact that dogs and monkeys don't wear Armani (at least not consentingly) is definitive proof that they have no sense of self.Roger Morris's Taking Comfort could easily be titled "Apotropian." The protagonist is a marketing man (shades of Morris himself) who, after witnessing a suicide, begins to collect objects associated with tragedy in the belief that they have the power to protect him from disaster in his own life. A novel about materialism may sound, at first, cliche, but it's carried off with a deft touch, the material presented in a way that is at once fresh and familiar. Morris plays a dangerous game with his narrative, constantly switching perspectives and focusing the action in each chapter on the relationship between a character and an object. The gambit pays off, as we're shown the inner life of a multitude of characters, both incidental and essential to the main action of the story, a tactic that allows Morris a hard-to-achieve combination of introspection and brisk pacing. Inevitably, the objects the book fetishizes become part of the characters, even characters themselves. Everything from birth control pills to a coffee mug exert a powerful influence over their owners/users, contributing to identities that possess, in their reliance on the things with which they surround themselves, an alarming malleability.Whether these relationships are good or bad, Morris never makes clear. What is unavoidable, though, is his thesis that our relationships to things are meaningful, whether we like it or not. Although other authors, notably Brett Easton Ellis have sought to comment on the moral emptiness of modern life by describing their characters with brand names and designer goods, Morris's characters' relationships with their possessions rise above cynical manipulations, achieving something like poetry. Morris has a gift for spare, vital prose, and both characters and objects are described with the loving precision of a man who makes his living selling things. The book is written in the language of the marketplace, and it possesses an odd lyricism, ripped off of billboards and television spots, that in some ways predicts the future, a time when the low culture of advertising, god help us, merges with the high culture of literature (much to the delight of the late Andy Warhol, no doubt).Perhaps this is Morris's greatest accomplishment, one that could have only been carried off by a marketing man: he makes us believe in things, not as mere manifestations of our material culture, but as incarnations of hope, desire, and courage. He makes us believe they're important. By the sex scene in the middle of the book, even the body is, inevitably and with great power, reduced to nothing more than an object, over which the main protagonist's girlfriend floats observing. With this epiphanic out of body experience, one of the book's most stirring images, Morris makes it clear that our bodies themselves are nothing more than things, our possessions mere extensions of ourselves.Although the ending lacks the feeling of inevitability that distinguishes a truly masterful novel, Morris's book is as good as, if not better than, most of the Booker and Whitbread (now Costa) winning novels I've read over the last few years (Life of Pi, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Vernon God Little come to mind) and deserves all of the attention that has been heaped on those projects.With his soon to be released second book, The Gentle Axe, a high concept thriller starring Inspector Porfiry Petrovich of Crime and Punishment, already garnering praise, Morris is a name to keep an eye on.
Literary awards please almost no one. As William Gass famously complained, “any award giving outfit is doomed to make mistakes and pass the masters by in silence.” Each year, nominees are announced and each year readers and critics love to grumble. The 2004 National Book Award Nominees for fiction, however, inspired a level of grousing rarely seen in the last decade. Each nominee for the shortlist was a woman, and each woman lived in New York City. Immediately, both the mainstream press and the literary blogosphere started throwing about terms: Elitist. Insular. Sameness. The New York Times gleefully reported that none of the women nominated had sold more than 2,000 copies of their books and quoted the literary editor of The Atlantic as saying, “I thought this was a really weak year for fiction, but I still wouldn't have guessed that any of these would have been strong contenders.'' Major newspapers that had not reviewed the books attempted one-fell-swoop pieces in which they treated the five disparate works as some sort of literary quintet, complete with facile pronouncements about their collective shortcomings. Chairman of the judges panel Rick Moody took a good deal of criticism for imposing his aesthetic with too heavy a hand. Caryn James of the Times searched (and claimed to find) common links between all the nominees, writing: “all five are built on compressed observations that easily veer into precious writers' program language, too woozy and poetic for its own good.” Of course, this was a stretch. Five books by five women from the same city of eight million souls do not make for a uniform aesthetic. Anyone who reads one sentence written by 2004 nominee Christine Schutt, a former Gordon Lish acolyte known for her attention to the sonics of language, repetition, and rhythm as well as unusual and stunning verb choice will immediately see the folly of James’ claim. Joan Silber, another one of the five nominees has a strikingly different prose style, a much more straightforward and unadorned mode that could not be further from Schutt. Lost in all the befuddlement about these relative unknowns and their supposed similarities were the actual merits of the books nominated. Among the crop of nominees was Joan Silber, nominated that year for her “ring of stories,” Ideas of Heaven, a work that explores the long-term impact that a single choice can have on a life. In every chapter/story, a Silber character is faced with a decision that takes decades to reveal its true repercussions, and often the actual impact of this decision will lie unrealized, producing subtle and destructive consequences for the rest of the character's life. Whether Silber characters inhabit 16th century Italy or contemporary America, all of them are similarly preoccupied when it comes to life-choices and whether the passage of time allows for any sort of lesson at all when it comes to reflecting on the lives they have chosen (or been forced) to live. In both Ideas of Heaven and her 2008 work, Size of the World, Silber utilizes nearly identical structures to portray the universality of this condition. Regardless of time period, Silber employs strikingly similar narrative voices for all of her characters, with few allowances for age or gender. In the same way that Silber’s characters from different countries and time periods have nearly identical emotional concerns, the consistency of voice in Ideas of Heaven and Size of the World is yet another Silber technique employed to demonstrate the shared humanity of these disparate characters in the most varied of circumstances. What, you might wonder, is the “ring of stories” referred to in Ideas of Heaven? How is the ring related to the linked short story, the novel-in-stories, and the plain old-fashioned novel? Though there is no sport more boring and useless than literary classification, when Silber’s Ideas of Heaven is paired with Size of the World, one can see how little this question matters. (Even the author may not be the most authoritative in this case. In an interview with The Millions, Silber herself calls Ideas of Heaven “a hybrid between the novel and linked stories” and refers to the structure of Size of the World as simply, “this form.”) Billed on the front as “a novel,” Size of the World utilizes almost the exact same structure as Ideas of Heaven, the “ring of stories.” In both works, Silber has pioneered a distinct form, a crowd-told tale of multiple first person narrators, each chapter building on the next, but with each narrator’s story containing a dramatic structure traditionally associated with short fiction. In fact, chapters from both Ideas of Heaven and Size of the World were published in journals and anthologies as standalone short stories. However, the Silber-applied “ring” in question likely refers to the fact that as the reader progresses through the work, the newer stories alter understanding of the earlier stories, until by the very end they have eventually circled back and all affected each other. Silber utilizes passage of time like few of her contemporaries. Most interesting is Silber’s usage of what she herself calls, “long time.” In each story or chapter in Size of the World and Ideas of Heaven, decades pass, often in one sentence. “We went through all our savings, such as they were, in those five years in Ohio,” from Ideas of Heaven, or “In the third year we were together, the band had such a long dry spell that Randy got side work with a friend’s combo that did weddings and bar mitzvahs,” from Size of the World. But Silber’s “long time” is not merely about summary and exposition. Silber herself has laid out the blueprint for how what exactly “long-time” is and how she accomplishes it in her craft book, The Art of Time in Fiction. Though ostensibly an exploration of how authors manage and explore time in their work, Silber glides over “classic time”, “slowed time” and others to get to the passage of time she clearly finds most engaging: long time. The most consistent Silber technique in long time is to utilize habitual action as though it were a single event. Examples abound in every chapter or story in both Ideas of Heaven and Size of the World as well as many of Silber’s earlier short stories. In Size of the World, Corrina, who eventually spends six years in what is then Siam, narrates her gradual comfort with the land around her: My walks got longer, along the roads going inland, with paddies and forest on either side. Often I wanted to bring back a flower or a leafy stalk, but the stem were too fleshy to break, and I had a rational fear of sticking my hand in the foliage. I knew about snakes. Silber discusses the benefits of this method in The Art of Time in Fiction, naming Flaubert and Chekhov as masters of this technique and claiming that “even in a story that leaps over long spans of time,” such a move allows for “the intimacy of the close gaze.” Though other contemporary authors often deal with extended periods of time, few do so in the manner of Silber. Alice Munro, for instance, also often chronicles decades in the lives of her characters. Munro, however, utilizes shifting perspectives and frequently jumps forwards or backwards in time. Though Silber often credits Munro as a major influence, Silber’s work is much more constrained. Once a Silber character begins narrating a chapter or story, you can be sure that she will remain the sole narrator. In Munro, this is far less likely. Additionally, Munro is much more likely to experiment with tense, with stories completely told in present tense, (“Walker Brothers Cowboy”) or alternating between past and present (“Accident”). Silber characters all narrate their past from a usually undetermined later period in life. Where for Munro, time may be elastic, for Silber, time is guaranteed to be a linear progression that is difficult to make sense of. Though sole incidents often deeply affect Silber and Munro characters for the rest of their lives, the two authors differ in their illustrations of these effects. Unlike in Munro stories, a Silber character may think about the past, but they will never do it in scene. Though the first person narrators who populate Size of the World and Ideas of Heaven are of distinct genders, nationalities, time periods, and generations, Silber uses the same technique of long time in each of the stories/chapters. Silber seems to utilize the long form in order to allow the weight of an action to fully inhabit its impact on the character. That is, time passes in Silber stories so the reader can fully understand the effect a seemingly unimportant decision or unforeseeable event (a car crash, a hurricane) can have on the rest of a character’s life. To truly demonstrate the impact of these events and how they change the character(s) in question, a good deal of time must pass. Unlike Alice Munro and other contemporary authors, Silber rarely withholds information. Before a reader begins a story/chapter in Size of the World, a heading makes the reader aware of the narrator’s name, as well as an encompassing emotion that will be present in the story (envy, lust, paradise, loyalty, etc). In addition to her titles, Silber’s beginnings ground the reader immediately. For example, “Paradise” from Size of the World, begins as follows: “We moved to Florida in 1924, just as the land boom was taking off. We were not a young family—I was already twenty-one and my parents were in their forties and fifties.” With assistance from the title, we already know from the first two sentences that our narrator’s name is Corrina, as well as her age, the time period, and geographic location. A consistent Silber sub-theme within her explorations of time and its effects is uprootedness and migration. As time passes, Silber characters tend to repeat both the process of falling in love with a new place and being upended and wishing one was back in the place that was once unfriendly. This pattern is a constant in Size of the World as well as Ideas of Heaven. Even when Silber characters are unhappy with the geographic location in which they find themselves, they rarely find the place overwhelming for very long. If they do, they soon—via Silber’s habitual time rendered as scene—become acclimated in several paragraphs that may span years. This is not to say that Silber characters are always happy where they are. Quite often, they would simply rather be elsewhere, or are visitors in the place that they call home. It is only the passage of time that dulls their sense of dislocation. Silber’s Annunziata, in Size of the World, uprooted from Sicily: “I didn’t really want to get better at knowing Hoboken, things—deep in my heart they didn’t interest me—but I learned them, inch by inch, in spite of myself.” For Silber, the decades passing allow the reader to recognize the long-term impact of decisions on the characters. In her project of exploring the devastating or healing effects of time, Silber has created a rare formula, exploring very large questions through the tiniest and most specific of lives.
● ● ●
On the handsome cover jacket of Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation it says 'a novel' but at just over 140 pages, Beasts is more of a novella. Whatever the classification, the book is Iweala's debut effort. From the inner jacket, the reader is informed that Iweala, whose parents are Nigerian, was born in 1982 and went to Harvard, where he won numerous writing awards.Iweala's impressive pedigree heightened my interest, and my expectations, when I dug in. Beasts of No Nation is that kind of book: you have to dig in, stiffen the upper lip, and brace yourself because the narrative is unrelenting. Set in an unnamed west African nation embroiled in civil war, the story is told by a young boy called Agu. Separated from his mother and sister, Agu witnesses the killing of his father as rebel fighters descend on his village. He is left for dead but is discovered by a rebel outfit, thus beginning a new life as an orphan and a conscript in the same loosely organized army that is responsible for the death of his family and fellow villagers. Thus also begins his life as a beast.The first thing one notices reading Beasts is the distinctive style in which it is written. Iweala crafts the narrative using the voice of Agu, English that is subtly Africanized, replete with quirks of tense and cadence: "One day one soldier from our group is jumping off tall rock because he is saying he is finding heaven in all of the tree. I am thinking that he was madding in the head." The use of present tense throughout gives the narration an immediacy that heightens the impact of the language and the urgency of the story. It took me all of about a page to get accustomed to this style, and I never sensed that the writing intruded on the story.Agu's voice is not just distinctly African, it is the voice of a young person, and this aspect of the narrative is essential to the success of the story. Agu describes the horrors to which he is subjected in straightforward, unflinching language. His youth, the nakedness of his feelings, give his words added power and the story more credibility. Agu is caught up in things which he does not understand, adult things like war, killing, and depravity, but we never feel that he is part of that world, even though he is forced to participate in it. The writing, while straightforward, is not devoid of lyricism: there is a richness to the descriptions, especially when Iweala tackles the points of the story that are most disturbing. In this passage, Agu is forced to kill for the first time:It is like the world is moving slowly and I am seeing each drop of blood and each drop of sweat flying here and there. I am hearing the bird flapping their wing as they are leaving all the tree. It is sounding like thunder. I am hearing the mosquito buzzing in my ear so loud and I am feeling how the blood is just wetting on my leg and my face. The enemy's body is having deep red cut everywhere and his forehead is looking just crushed so his whole face is not even looking like face because his head is broken everywhere and there is just blood, blood, blood... I am hearing hammer knocking in my head and chest. My nose and mouth is itching. I am seeing all the color everywhere and my belly is feeling empty. I am growing hard between my legs. Is this like falling in love?The last line of the passage refers to the words of the Commandant, as he is called, the leader of the rebel militia group who gives Agu the fateful choice of kill or be killed. The Commandant says that killing is "like falling in love." This character becomes the face of the insane brutality of the war, the personification of the forces that drive Agu and the rest of the "soldiers" to commit violent acts. Iweala does not let up for an instant in casting this perverse relationship: in addition to his psychological control, the Commandant exerts real physical control over Agu, not only forcing Agu to kill, but also to submit to his sexual appetites.It all adds up to a grim existence for Agu, and one to which the reader can quickly become desensitized. It is horrible to read about such a profound disintegration of society, where children must become warriors and killers of the innocent, and not feel a hopelessness knowing that the story has played out in real life many times before, in places like Sierra Leone and the Sudan. But while it is true that the characters and the narrative are drawn in very broad strokes, Iweala is able to save his book from becoming mere social commentary, something you might see on the U.N.'s required reading list but not on the bookshelf of your average book lover. Iweala accomplishes this by focusing the story not on the horrors of war, and the way in which the men and boys involved are made beastly, but on Agu's inner struggle to maintain a sense of who he is and where he came from. Agu does not give himself over to the beast within; he maintains a sense of his own humanity even in the face of such senseless cruelty.In this context, Iweala's decision to begin Beasts of No Nation with a quote from Une Saison en Enfer by Rimbaud is revealing. I admit, I had to brush up on the life of this great, tortured French writer of the 19th century, but I discovered that Rimbaud's life in some ways paralleled that of Agu: orphaned in wartime, caught up in a rebel movement, but most importantly, a person who in his writing constantly struggled to reconcile his bad acts with an enduring sense of his own humanity (it's no coincidence that the character in Beasts who ultimately assumes control of the rebel group and leads them away from the field of battle is called "Rambo"). In drawing this parallel, Iweala quietly demands that his story not be confined to Africa or the modern problem of child warriors there. It is his depiction of Agu's psychological conflict, a theme as old as literature, that imbues Iweala's work with literary clout beyond its modern subject matter, and gives shape and nuance to what otherwise would be little more than an exploration into the depths of human depravity.
● ● ●
A good psychoanalyst does two things: she listens, and she dissects. In Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of her advice columns, Cheryl Strayed does both adeptly. The thing is, she’s never met the people she’s scrutinizing, and she’s far from a trained psychoanalyst. In fact, Strayed writes, “I’ve only seen a therapist a handful of times in my life.” It’s a shocking revelation. The columns in the book were originally written for The Rumpus under the pen name Sugar, and Strayed’s identity was concealed until February. In the book, the pieces are presented in five groups, interspersed with short Q&As with Strayed. Like every advice column, each piece here is in two parts: the letter someone sent in and the reply Sugar wrote back. Only here, the letters are long affairs -- usually paragraphs, sometimes pages. If you want to read Sugar’s words, you must read her advisee’s story first. But the real listening is in Sugar’s replies. Most people who write in use an alias -- Stuck, Mourning and Raging, Wanting -- which Strayed repeats throughout her letters, a reminder that she’s writing a column, yes, but she’s also writing it to you, letter-writer. It’s the affection of a mother, or a lover, saying your name over and over again. But it’s charged with an undercurrent: this isn’t, in fact, your name. It’s the question or lack that drives your existence. “I could put most of the letters I receive into two piles: those from people who are afraid to do what they know in their hearts they need to do, and those from people who have genuinely lost their way,” Strayed writes in one letter. It’s the former that yield the most interesting and thoughtful responses. Strayed finds the worm buried at the bottom of a pile of dirt, pulls it out like a thread, and slices it open. The innards of the innards: that’s where she starts. As Sugar puts it, “This is where we must dig.” Often, she quotes letters back at her advisees, showing them what they’ve already told her. One young woman, about to lose her job, asks Sugar whether she should take a prostitution gig in order to pay the bills. “You don’t need me to tell you whether you should accept this offer. You need me only to show you to yourself,” Strayed writes. “Every time I think about him touching me I want to cry, you say. Do you hear that?” Or, in another letter: “The sad but strong and true answer is the one you already told yourself.” Sugar forces us to swallow sometimes painful realizations about what we want, who we are, and what we therefore must do -- or, if not that, the choices we must make. She also lays bare the impossibility of controlling what isn’t ours to control. To a woman contemplating inviting her abusive father to her wedding in the hopes that he’ll be different, Sugar writes, “Oh, but baby girl, your father is not going to do anything you want him to do because you want him to do it. Not one damn motherloving thing! You simply didn’t get that kind of dad.” You simply didn’t get that kind of dad: this is a slap. Some things you don’t get to pick. The honesty is far more comforting than shallow promises would be. Sugar can handle what’s real in us. Psychoanalysts are meant to act as containers for their patients’ emotions and subconscious thoughts, modifying frustrations so patients can handle them -- the type of thing a detached or emotionally fragile mother can’t do. Sugar has this capacity, if (obviously) not the knowledge of her letter-writers that analysts have of their patients. If she can handle our treacherous secrets without disintegrating, maybe others will accept us in our entirety, too. Maybe we can even accept ourselves. Strayed’s letters were written anonymously, but this doesn’t prevent her from divulging incredibly personal details. We learn that her father was a “destructive force,” that her mother died young, that her grandfather sexually abused her. Her past has included theft, heroin, an abortion, a divorce. We learn that she now is married with two children, that she’s content, that her husband cheated on her, but that they transcended that horror. And we know that, by now, she knows herself pretty damn well. Sigmund Freud wrote: “The doctor should be opaque to his patients and, like a mirror, should show them nothing but what is shown to him.” Sugar? No. Aside from the anonymity, she’s anything but opaque. Well, sort of. Sugar seems to have had more experiences than any human we’ve ever met, like some sort of omniscient goddess. This is its own form of opacity. But on a literal level, yes, she’s sharing heaps of personal information. How do we reconcile her analyst-like aura with her revelatory tendencies? More to the point, how does she come across as listening to readers with her entire being if her response often features herself? These stories are not written for their own sake, but as a way to explain human complexity. The details of her past theft comes out as a means of empathizing with a writer ashamed of the same. Sugar describes her husband’s infidelity to help a fiancée with a stark, black-and-white view of marriage consider nuance. This is the type of meaning-making any personal essayist or memoirist should aim for, of course -- and, notably, Strayed is both -- but it’s all the more explicit and obvious in an advice column. Strayed’s story is, in its way, a mirror. One of Strayed’s most vital messages -- which her revelations of past lapses are meant to show -- is that being a real, whole person means being imperfect. Sugar models this not only in her history, but in her letters, too. Once in a while, she doesn’t offer the empathy we so seek. She falters. One woman writes in, distraught that her parents will no longer be helping with her student loans. She writes that she is angry, but that she feels selfish about it; more importantly, she writes, “My relationship with my parents has always been rocky to the point that I’ve come to realize I’ll never get any emotional support from them,” and “I wish my parents would see me for the vibrant woman I am.” Strayed replies by describing the 16 jobs she’d had by the time she graduated from college. She writes, “You need to stop feeling sorry for yourself.” Her letter focuses on the woman’s responsibility for her own (financial) life. This is valid. But perhaps Strayed’s own complexes about her financial history are clouding her judgment here, because her focus is misplaced. This letter isn’t, at root, about the money. It’s about emotional neglect -- the woman has literally written that she wishes her parents could really understand her. The monetary support was just a feeble stand-in, and now it’s gone. Sugar’s error here -- her rare failure to unearth the nugget at the center -- in fact helps us better understand her point. Sugar is good enough, but not perfect, as a person or an advisor. Which is exactly what she’s been trying to tell us all along.
Florida is America's Orient, meaning that it is a repository for the appetites and fantasies of people north and west, who colonize it every year, pine from afar for its sultry vistas, and/or pass judgement on its backwardness and savagery. It is a borderland, land of exotic flavors and sounds, Miami and Disney its Baghdad and Samarkand. In our fevered imaginings, it is both a seat of culture and a lawless zone. This characterization will sound tastelessly glib in light of the weekend's events, but on Sunday I saw so many pixels spilled in some variation of "Well, Florida," and "What do you expect?" When a terrible thing happens in Florida, whether it has to do with guns or voting or mangled faces, there is a broad Internet consensus that Florida is fucked up in some unique way at odds with the rest of our highly civilized nation -- that Florida is somehow Other. The latter aspect of our Florida fantasies are wrought in the newspaper and immortalized in fiction; in The New Yorker of June 10, Adam Gopnik diagrammed the noble chain of the Florida crime novel, a lineage from John D. MacDonald, to Elmore Leonard, to Dave Barry, and finally to the extraordinarily popular Carl Hiaasen. Gopnik calls this kind of novel "Florida glare," a corollary of the noir novel and one representing America's spiritual and aesthetic evolution, Gopnik concludes, from "night cities of sinister conspiracies to a sunlit country of grotesque coincidences." I read Gopnik's essay while I was making my way through and struggling to understand the style of Charlie Smith's new novel, Men in Miami Hotels. Charlie Smith is patently not in the tradition of Florida glare, but, as the novelist Steve Glassman points out in a quotation in Gopnik's piece: "There are few first-rate writers in Florida who aren't crime writers." Although Smith is not from Florida (he's from Georgia, which hardly makes him Ingres in my Orientalist theory but is worth noting nonetheless), he seems to write an awful lot about Florida, and Men in Miami Hotels is certainly a novel about crime. At the start of Smith's novel, you're in hometown territory, which is obligated by the laws of life and literature to be full of jus' folks and their foibles. A man named Cot Sims comes back to Key West to see his mother. The reason for Cot's homecoming might be taken from a Floridian vignette of Lake Woebegone Days: his mama's house was knocked off its pins during a hurricane and declared uninhabitable by the civic notables; to protect her turf she takes up residence beneath it. Within a page he meets Jackie Bivins, "a local itinerant who's sitting on the front steps," and declines the invitation of Mrs. Coldwell for a slice of butterfly cake. The mayor, a man named Smushy, offers Cot a "perfunctory hello," as they both arrive to talk with Marcella, the town lawyer. When some unknown assailant, page three, careens into the story only long enough to punch Marcella in the face and knock her off her pins, I felt a deep twitch in my inner ear, as the kind of book I thought I was reading, with butterfly cake and homecomings and folks, became something I didn't quite recognize. Within a few more pages, a face-punch to a woman who takes it in stride seems a minimal disruption in the general scheme of things, a low-key introduction to the Criminal Element that will quickly proliferate in the text. Cot works for a mafioso svengali back in sinister Miami; despite his long tenure as a working gangster in this man Albertson's employ, Cot seems to have a hard time holding on to money. To fix the problem of his mother's house, Cot steals his master's emeralds and passes them off to his best friend, a beloved local transgender lounge singer who lasts less than a chapter with the emeralds in hand. The revelation of Cot's theft sets in motion a strict automatic justice; men begin coming from Miami, and coming and coming and coming, to mete out retribution for Cot's wrongs. Men in Miami Hotels is a crime novel, but one in which the criminal "wishes he was sitting in the Caribe Diner in south Miami eating eggs scrambled with shrimp and reading Virgil." His boss Albertson has "a wide, slightly pock-marked face...that seems just barely to conceal a figuration of the spirit, a domesticity and warmth, that has never been known to come fully to the surface." Cot is the spiritual husband of Marcella, a beautiful hard case who smells like lemons and tastes like mango and who is married to Ordell, he of "hair like the mournful pelt of a just extinguished species." All of these people have murder in their hearts. I have come to hate the word "lyrical," because people use it about books the way people use "stunning" about a woman in her wedding dress, to the extent that it similarly feels obligatory (and misapplied in enough cases that when it's true it rings false). Unfortunately, excising the word makes me feel bereft in some circumstances. Men in Miami Hotels is lyrical in that it is beautiful and that it is composed by a person with high poetic sensibilities. Charlie Smith is a prolific poet; not only is his writing poetic, his characters are all poets in spirit if not occupation. I was so taken with the exuberant word-drunk style of this novel that I read an earlier one by the author, Three Delays, which also has crime, but is more about people whose lives are in disarray. Smith's style is stylish enough that I was prepared initially to square myself against it. In the end I was too interested in the unexpected plot, too surprised by his characters, to taken with his turns of phrase, to reject him. I was also too seduced by the island sounds and scent of the coastal foliage, the softer, lovelier side of the Orientalist gaze. In Gopnik's article, the aforementioned Steve Glassman is quoted a second time: "When you have two characters in a Florida novel you really have three: a man, a woman, and the weather." In Smith's novel, there's weather, but there are also trees and food. My Lord, does Smith write a seductive travelogue. The coral dust roads are lined with Casuarina, ficus, poinciana, Egyptian date palms, hibiscus, bahia grass. There are pounds of pink, sweet-smelling shrimp and dorado filets and snapper salad. Smith's characters drink salted coffee and peel little guavas and squeeze lemon in their mouths; they buy cold cans of tea and fix trays of gin and tonics and make sandwiches with peanut butter and papaya. When Cot arrives in Cuba for the denouement, it smells like raw coriander and peppers. For the Orientalist gazing from clammy San Francisco, Smith makes it feel almost as though it would be worth risking his coterie of gangsters to go and drink rum drinks on galleries constructed as if specifically for people to enjoy rum drinks on them. Shit is sensual. Shit is sensual, but inexorable. Men in Miami Hotels depicts a world of consequences, not coincidences, and the plot reminded me of nothing so much as No Country for Old Men, which I hesitate to mention for fear of really fundamental spoilers. Smith's writing style couldn't be further from McCarthy's (what the inimitable James Wood calls "Blood Fustian"), but the plot runs on very similar lines. Fateful choice, love, betrayal, death, death, death. Gopnik faces Florida full-on; he finds the terror and chaos of America at large in the branch of crime writing represented by Florida Glare. Men in Miami Hotels has very little in common with the output of Carl Hiaasen; it's a slightly old-fashioned work that never bothered to evolve along with its beefcake Florida peers. Its murders don't seem to have much to do with the newspaper, at least not this week -- for all its death and disaster, this novel is mercifully shaded from Florida glare by some kind of attractive scented tree. Reading Three Delays, I kept trying to put a finger on Charlie Smith's general tenor and I kept coming back to "Disordered Lives of the Poets." Men in Miami Hotels wants a pigeonhole, but its name eludes me. Lapsarian Lyric? Casuarina Crime? Key Noir? Florientalism? (James Wood would think of something good.) I don't know it is, exactly, but I know that I like it.