Something more than serendipity was afoot when I entered my neighborhood’s pie-eating contest this year. It was a warm, sunny morning so I hoofed it a few blocks from my house to the bakery, signed up for the day’s contest, and returned home to kill four hours before it began. I was sitting on my porch, having just cracked open Thomas McGuane’s Ninety-two in the Shade, which I’d plucked at random from my bookshelf of Florida writing. (You may have read about my “thing” with the Sunshine State…) Not long after, I got to a scene in which, you guessed it, contestants eat a bunch of pies, hoping to win a fishing trip:
Before he was really prepared for the event, it was upon him. Abruptly, uniformed men from the truck were trooping to the tables, tall piles of stacked pies in their hands. By the time the pies were emplaced, with the flavor choices of the contestants honored, the judges had raised their pistols.
Then the guns were fired and all twenty lashed into the pies; a moment later and the slowest contestants had eaten five; and in another moment, the first vomiter rose, the gelatinous, undigested cherries of her ‘flavor option’ dribbling down her chest.
And very quickly it was over. Losers were roughly hustled away from the table and the redhead was left alone. He looked around himself in happy disbelief for the brief remaining moment before he was declared the winner. Then all hesitation vanishing, he rose powerfully, baying his triumph in an impressive hurricane of crumbs, the insect jaws agape.
When Nichol Dance gave him his certificate, he said, ‘Boy, fishing is all I’m about! I’m the mother dog of all fishermen and I want to go out with you real bad–‘ With the word ‘bad’ he began to vomit all over himself.
And Dance went off in a panic, saying, “Well, I’ll look to hear from you down to the dock. I hope you’re feeling better!”
I took it as a sign. This contest was mine to win. A year earlier, I’d taken third. The man who won was wearing a full arm cast—the type in which your arm is bent at a 90 degree angle, and a stick holds it out from your waist—so he quite literally beat all of us with one hand tied behind his back. I couldn’t suffer the same indignity twice.
Reader, I suffered the same indignity twice. In fact, I did even worse, placing fourth after the same two gluttons who beat me last time, and after the guy who took first, who apparently had won in 2015, took 2016 off, and chose 2017 as the year he’d reclaim his title.
The experience shaded my entire year in reading, however. From that moment on, whenever I read anything, I couldn’t shake the feeling that what I read would foretell or signal some immediate development in my actual life. This quickly became more than a little scary. I read Mathias Svalina’s The Wine-Dark Sea and worried, am I growing depressed? I read Stephen King’s It and avoided sewer grates as a precaution. (I am not taking a bath any time soon.) I unplugged so many electronics after I read (and reviewed!) Alissa Nutting’s Made for Love. Why risk it? Did that lamp just move? I wondered after reading Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne. While traveling to a friend’s wedding in Montana, I read Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, which is a riveting narrative of Meriwether Lewis’s westward exploration. Somewhere in Wyoming, I read the chapter about the men wintering in South Dakota which opens with this line, and I grew terrified until I realized it was summer, and things were warm:
It was always cold, often brutally cold, sometimes so cold a man’s penis would freeze if he wasn’t quick about it.
It didn’t matter that after the pie-eating contest, there had been no instances in which my reading leapt off the page into my corporeal reality. The feeling endured regardless. Then again, in addition to the times when the effect was frightening, there were also moments in which it was aspirational. Maybe I wanted it to happen again. The whole time I read Fire in the Hole, I was waiting for a whiskey glass to appear in my hand. Ditto for Hard Rain Falling. I expected chicken wings to manifest when I read Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book.
Alas, none of that came to be. Over time, the feeling’s faded. Recently I read (and reviewed!) Hotel Scarface and I didn’t worry about the FBI wiretapping me once.
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Liars wrote Florida’s history, but screenwriters wrote Miami’s. The liars swindled tourists by inventing outlandish tales of treasure coast pirates who never existed. They tricked snowbirds into buying swampland sight unseen. Local tourism boards spun yarns about the Fountain of Youth, and upon this foundation of lies and limestone they built statewide industries of day tours, time shares, theme parks, and souvenirs.
The screenwriters did something different. Instead of ginning things up, they toned things down. They took factual vignettes from Miami’s boom days and smoothed them out for mass-market consumption, creating sexy highlight reels of hot nights, glitz, and fast thrills. Whereas the most popular stories in Florida’s history were fabricated by marketers and speculators, the most popular Miami myths were borne from the truth. By simplifying them, the screenwriters took the tales nationwide.
No city in America owes more of its reputation to popular culture and less to reported history than Miami. One reason is because the city, incorporated in 1896, lacks as much scholarly or critical examination as its older peers. There’s no Power Broker for Miami; there’s no City on the Make; and don’t get me started on Tom Wolfe. Yet it’s also because by now, with no disrespect to Arva Moore Parks, there are precious few historical or journalistic touchstones that could ever be more widely read than Miami Vice was viewed. In most imaginations, the closest thing Miami has to an essential story is Scarface. While flawed, maligned, and largely filmed in Los Angeles, the film successfully hit on the four foundational (and true!) pillars of Miami’s modern development: Cuban immigration, glamorous nightlife, its edgy underbelly, and the narcotics trade fueling it all. Because they came first and made the most noise, Scarface and Miami Vice solidified Miami’s reputation. Once America met Crockett, Tubbs, and Tony, they got the gist.
Or so they thought. In Hotel Scarface, Roben Farzad uncovers the real stories that inspired those screenwriters. Along the way, he proves that the Magic City’s reality has always been wilder, deeper, and more complicated than it seems. Best of all, Farzad’s nonfiction account—freed from MPAA ratings and the FCC—includes some of the most salacious details the screenwriters couldn’t: pasta fetishes, CIA-backed narco-trafficking, Dom Pérignon baths and all.
Set in the age of Donna Summer and deviated septums, Hotel Scarface is about Coconut Grove’s infamous Mutiny Hotel and its members-only nightclub. Located steps from Biscayne at 2951 South Bayshore Drive, the Mutiny was at the time Miami’s version of the Tropicana Club, and would go on to serve as the inspiration for the Babylon in Scarface. Here, celebrities did the hustle alongside narco kingpins and the law enforcement officers building cases against them. During the club’s three decades in operation, you could be stayin’ alive with the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Randy Newman, Frankie Valli, and The Eagles. If you stayed overnight, your ostentatiously decorated room might have been last occupied by Rick James, Led Zeppelin, Joe DiMaggio, or Tony Dorsett. If he wasn’t busy freebasing, you could blow rails in the bathroom with David Crosby. (He wrote a lousy song about the place.) So enmeshed were these groups that, at one point, an FBI wiretap was rendered useless because agents couldn’t hear their targets over Liza Minelli loudly asking her friend for another bump. It was the kind of place where you could blow $100,000 on a tab without even meeting the manager.
In more than 50 short chapters, Farzad positions the Mutiny as an operational hub for the kingpins who opened the spigots of cash financing Miami’s rise. “By the turn of the decade,” Farzad writes, “the 130-room hotel and club was a criminal free-trade zone of sorts where gangsters could both revel in Miami’s danger and escape from it.” These were the outlaws who connected Peru and Colombia to the Bahamas, and eyed South Florida as their entrée to North America. Along the way, a thousand coca leaves (street value: $625) would turn into a kilogram of paste and high-quality base ($6,500), and then get cut and diluted into two kilograms of cocaine ($80,000). From there, it would be cut again and distributed across the U.S., and in this way, that $625 investment could turn into $600,000. These insane margins meant that by the 1980s, one third of Miami’s economy was narcotics-based. The whole city was in on it—knowingly or not. For want of money laundering, skyscrapers, dirty banks, and business fronts shot up. For want of quick bucks, support staff convened: hitmen, drivers, pilots, watermen, weapons importers, and prostitutes. At one point, the Moonflower Escort Company set up “a twenty-four-hour dispatch office on a yacht in the marina in front of the hotel” so it could service Mutiny clientele. Alongside these objectively criminal enterprises sprang businesses operating in gray areas. Who do you think serviced those cigarette boats? Luxury boutiques and exotic car dealerships opened because Miamians had so much money to spend. Exclusive clubs did the same. “You could mint millions a day and blow it all at the Mutiny, winking at the very cops who were until recently on your ass,” Farzad writes.
Hence the complication. The story above is one simply told by a thousand screenwriters: drug dealers rise up, live large, meet babes, spar with rivals, and get killed or arrested. It identifies clear sides: good guys and bad guys. But the real story, as Hotel Scarface shows, goes deeper, and the lines are less clearly drawn. Those law enforcement officers and city officials who frequented the Mutiny? They were either directly involved in the drug trade or they were using the place for intelligence so they could build bigger cases—sometimes international ones. Those smugglers running drugs over the Florida Straits? They brought U.S. government-issued weapons back to Nicaraguan Contras, and sometimes they shuttled Contras and Cuban counter-revolutionaries into to the U.S. for CIA training. (Between the DEA, CIA, FBI, IRS, and a litany of in-state law enforcement agencies, there was no shortage of confusion.) Ricardo “Monkey” Morales made a living out of facilitating this kind of criminal-government overlap—and he frequently used the Mutiny as his headquarters. Howard Gary, Miami’s city manager, partied alongside Ray Corona, the founder of First Sunshine Bank. The two of them shared a cocktail table with a group of lawyers (“the cocaine bar”) who defended Miami’s most infamous dealers in court, and they all listened to music spun by a Mutiny DJ who was attending classes at the University of Miami. These guys financed cars and paid for breast implants for the Mutiny waitresses they liked the most. The government, the financial sector, big law, higher education, and medical institutions all benefited from drug money—when there’s enough to go around, who cares where capital comes from? How can you repossess fake breasts? Farzad quotes Attorney General William French Smith, who described some of these crooked officials’ eventual busts as demonstrative of “one of the most important aspects of the scope of drug trafficking activities: the penetration of the financial and business communities.” Years later, a former cocaine dealer who hung out with the biggest dealers of his day remarked that, had he and his buddies ever snitched on the precise level of that penetration, “there’d be a lot of institutions dead, rotting and stinking in Miami right now.”
At its best, Hotel Scarface reads like South Florida’s version of The Westies, and native son Roben Farzad shares T.J. English’s eye for power dynamics. Farzad argues persuasively that revolutionary politics served as the dividing line between Miami’s first and second generations of Cuban-born cocaine cowboys. Dealers like Carlos “Carlene” Quesada and Rodolfo “Rudy Redbeard” Rodriguez Gallo, who dominated Miami’s drug trade in the 1960s, arrived in Florida at a time when Fulgencio Batista’s mafia- and U.S. government-backed Cuban regime was being overthrown by Fidel Castro. They didn’t expect to stay long, but while they waited out the counter-revolution, why not make some money in America? They brought over the mafia’s prevailing attitudes about municipal governments: that everything could be bought and sold. If not exactly Cosa Nostra, they even had a mob-driven sense of decorum. (At the Mutiny, Fridays were for mistresses, Saturdays for wives, and never the twain should meet.)
The next era was ushered in by Cuban immigrants who’d come to America as very young children—some because of Operation Pedro Pan. For these narcos who grew up in Miami, and attended American high schools, there were fewer delusions about one day returning to Cuba and resettling their homeland. While they shared their predecessors’ aversion to violent crime, preferring to pay off rivals rather than kill them, men like Jorge Valdés, Willie Falcon, and Sal Magluta were self-aware criminals largely in it for themselves first, and the counter-revolution second:
Though their blue-collar parents wanted them to study hard and chase the American dream—college degrees, doctor, lawyer, etc.—most instead dropped out of high school and chased a life of speedboat racing, good weed, and hot and loose women. “Death to Castro!”—sure. The Boys hated the bearded despot—detested him. They toasted every new year with hopes for a Cuba libre. It’s just that the hedonism of 1970s Miami wasn’t so bad in the meantime.
By the 1980s, the wheels fell off. A third era began, one in which more nihilistic, violent criminals—some of them Marielitos—upped the ante. Their presence at the Mutiny wasn’t welcome. The old guard moved on to more exclusive clubs. After all, nothing is more American than climbing a ladder, and then pulling it up from under you. While the earlier cocaine cowboys held out incandescent hope about one day reclaiming their homeland with the help of backing from the U.S., the later generations saw no hope of working with the government. There’s was a more cynical attitude, ubiquitous by the time Joan Didion wrote Miami:
Here between the mangrove swamp and the barrier reef was an American city largely populated by people who believed that the United States had walked away before, had betrayed them at the Bay of Pigs and later, with consequences we have since seen. Here between the swamp and the reef was an American city populated by people who also believed that the United States would betray them again, in Honduras and in El Salvador and in Nicaragua, betray them at all the barricades of a phantom war they had once again taken not as the projection of another Washington abstraction but as their own struggle, la lucha, la causa, with consequences we have not yet seen.
They were also far less obedient to Mafioso codes, which meant they were also far more violent. Their arrival coincided with a shocking rise in the homicide rate. In 1978, Farzad notes, there were 243 murders in the Miami-Dade County. From 1979-1981, those numbers rose each year to 320, 515, and 621. By 1981, Time declared Miami “Paradise Lost.” This attracted national attention, and before long the “War on Drugs” was declared, the most flamboyant dealers were tracked down, and the Mutiny’s heyday came to an end. Farzad’s feat is taking readers along for that ride—it’s riveting stuff, and he does yeoman’s work linking the era’s politics to its popular culture.
Have times changed? In a sense. The Mutiny today is a luxury apartment building in which the median age of tenants approaches 85 years. Coconut Grove transitioned from a nexus of luxe nightlife into a dingier but nevertheless raucous hub of college bars, and then more recently it quieted down due to neighborhood complaints. Now you’re more likely to find a nice brunch than a nose bag. Gone are the days of the Dadeland Massacre and shootouts on U.S. 1; downtown Miami’s streets today are mostly bloodless.
Yet in other ways, the city’s essence has remained the same. John Rothchild was entirely correct in 1982 when he wrote that “to describe crime as Miami’s problem would be like describing oil as Houston’s problem,” and he’s a different kind of correct today. Crime is still the lifeblood of South Florida, although these days that crime is committed with computers and conference calls in board rooms around the world. It involves a bevy of foreign actors, from Russians to Venezuelans and everyone in between. (Did you hear the one about the oligarch who bought Donald Trump’s $45 million home for $95 million, and then demolished it before ever setting foot on the property?) Instead of white powder, white collars are what’s fueling South Florida’s real estate development: the jet set treats cities like Miami as safety deposit boxes, setting up multi-layered shell companies and plunking anonymized cash into multimillion dollar condos, which sit empty while others buy the surrounding units. Last year, 90 percent of the new construction in Miami was purchased with cash. This year, the Treasury Department flagged 30 percent of surveyed luxury real estate transactions for “suspicious activity” and potential money-laundering. It doesn’t matter, though, because if enough super-wealthy absentee tenants buy in the same building (anonymously), they’ll eventually raise the value of one another’s purchases, which they can go on to sell to the next generation of jet setters for quick windfalls of cash. By the time law enforcement notices, the early investors have laundered all the money they used on their initial deposits, and turned hefty profits. Does it surprise anyone that after New York, Miami was the American city named most frequently in the Panama Papers?
That change is reflected in relatively recent works of art, too. Charlie Smith’s Men in Miami Hotels, which I lovingly call a sugar-free version of Thomas McGuane’s Ninety-two in the Shade, demonstrates Miami’s current operational mode. In the book, which takes place almost exclusively in Key West, a criminal named Cot alternately works for, double crosses, and then evades his Mafioso benefactor holed up in a luxurious South Beach hotel. Readers never meet him. In other words, crime emanates from Miami but takes place far away from it, and the head honcho lives an unbothered life of comfort off the spoils.
Likewise, the pilot episode of Justified begins when Raylan Givens shoots a hitman in broad daylight at South Beach’s Delano Hotel. (In Elmore Leonard’s “Fire in the Hole” story upon which the show is based, the shooting takes place at the Cardozo.) Givens, a U.S. Marshal, is punished with forced reassignment to rural Kentucky. After all, this is the Miami of the 21st century! The city may have approached 700 murders a year during its 1980s boom in narco-violence, but last year, there were 84. In the past, shootouts took place all over the city. Now, they’ve been pushed into certain under-served neighborhoods. (Last year, Miami was named the worst city in America in terms of income inequality, and that’s a big reason why.)
As in Men in Miami Hotels, local criminal elements in Justified receive orders from their boss in Miami. Occasionally, the Magic City sends hitmen up to rural Kentucky to set matters straight. Miami is the center spoke on a wheel of crime, and it turns in all directions. In Bloodline, the Rayburn family was doing just fine until Danny took a southbound bus from Miami to his family’s palatial home in Islamorada.
One consequence of this shift in popular reputation is that now Miami has become an aspirational brand for criminals who are no longer the ones getting their hands dirty. Miami is home to the boss’s boss; setting up shop in Miami signifies that you might be crooked but you don’t need to slum it anymore. Downtown, criminality has been gentrified. Brickell and Miami Beach have become havens for wealthy retirees—criminal and non. This is true in art: Lil Wayne rapped that gangsters don’t die, they “get chubby and they move to Miami,” and Fat Trel brags about drinking peach Ciroc while “in Miami, eating chicken, steak, and shrimp linguine.” It’s also true in life: the anonymous people paying cash for Bal Harbour apartments are definitely not on the up and up, but they are living large. Lydia Kiesling wrote that Florida is “America’s Orient,” which is true, but I’d argue that more and more Miami is becoming America’s Dubai. It’s a playground for the ostentatiously wealthy to flaunt their ill-gotten gains in resorts and hotels staffed by an increasingly powerless and impoverished local populace. These days, setting a narco crime thriller in Miami is as anachronistic as opening a speakeasy in Hell’s Kitchen. (Need proof? The upcoming reboot of Scarface is set in Los Angeles.) If anything, what Miami needs now is a bitcoin-based Wolf of Wall Street reboot set in Sunny Isles.
The Mutiny got shut down, but a new generation of wealthy criminals has turned all of Miami into the same thing.
At the time of this writing, with most of Florida recently savaged by Hurricane Irma, it feels gauche to invoke Atlantis. And yet, the parallels are undeniable. In Plato’s account, Atlantis was the city that antagonized Athens; its kings had the hubris to establish for themselves a society different from the idyllic Republic, which repelled Atlantean encroachments. The point Atlantis served in Plato’s story was to prove that there are consequences for societies that don’t follow the rules: sooner or later, if they don’t destroy themselves, the gods will abandon them and the seas will bury all they ever had.
P. Scott Cunningham wrote that living in Miami “feels like living in the first third of a novel, in which the plucky protagonist is suffering setback after setback, but something must change, right, or why would there be so many pages left?” But what if Miami’s story really is a short one? What if it’s more of a novella? In “On Returning to Miami,” Nick Vagnoni writes to the city, “Maybe your sky seems aloof because / everyone comes here to forget, or maybe / there just isn’t much to remember here / yet.” Existence on the edge of Florida has always felt ephemeral, transient. Relatively speaking, the state’s barely been above water. Donald Justice wrote that he “will die in Miami in the sun,” and in the Mutiny’s days it was gunslingers you had to worry about, but aren’t the winds and the seas more likely to claim us all?
And when that happens, who will money save?