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?
I have a dark and abiding love for the electronic dance music of the nineties and aughts. If it shows up on the “Faithless” Pandora station; if it has been compiled in a collection like “I Love Ibiza” or “Ultimate Trance Vol. 18”; if it has the seductive hooting of indigenous pipes and angelic female voices over a thumping beat; chances are I like it. They have machines that pulse a beam of sound and cause you to fall down shitting; I hear this kind of music and compulsively yearn. I first heard it when I was a cooped-up teenager watching MTV Europe in a hot Athenian apartment, and it has always seemed to represent all of the sexy, free, mystical things that are expressly forbidden the adolescent. None of my experiences with this music in the wild have approached its promise when it vibrates in that apartment or in my headphones, while I vacuum the house or write this review. Of all this genre’s notes, the plaintive thumps the loudest.
I tell you this now only because something about the experience of reading J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence recreated this feeling so profoundly that I felt compelled to break out the Faithless and examine the component parts of my enthusiasm. I learned about Submergence on Twitter (never say that Twitter never gave me anything). The novel is, variously, a love story, martyrology, heresiography, science book, and spy novel. Like its Twitter supporters, who spoke in rapturous terms, I was sucked into the novel right away, from its commanding first line — “It was a bathroom in an unfinished house in Somalia in the year 2012″ — to its final epigraph from Horace: “Plunge it in deep water: it comes up more beautiful.”
The plaintive is alive in this novel. It is largely the story of a James More, a British spy who is being held by Somali Jihadists. The latter are beleaguered and ineffectual in the scheme of their own ambitions, but deadly effective for people in “a very dark and specific place” — like James More in his unfinished bathroom, like the fourteen-year-old Somali girl who is hooded with burlap before her stoning. As More is taken out and mock-executed, as he is worked over and then marginally repaired by a marginally sympathetic doctor, as he is taken to a desolate waterless part of Somalia and then to a mangrove forest, he contemplates damp England, and his forebear Thomas More, and, most importantly, a romantic week during which he met and fell in love with a dazzling scientist based in London. The scholarship of this woman, Danny Flinders, forms the leitmotif of the novel: she is interested in the patterns and mysteries of the deepest ocean, the least known part of the world. The novel follows More in his dark and specific place and Danny in hers — a submersible in a near-mythological section of the ocean called the Hadal deep. Submergence flirts both with what is called Big History, a an all-inclusive discipline of which the human experience forms a miniscule part, and with the genre of “CliFi.” As Danny tells James during their interlude:
Let’s say the Atlantic is 160 million years old…We appeared less than one million years ago. We walked in yesterday. It’s not much of a claim. Yet somewhere in the Atlantic right now and in other oceans…some man is smashing up a seamount more ancient than any greenwood on land, which he can’t see and refuses to value.
I have a weakness for bizarre analogies, but I think this novel aligns with my secretly cherished dance music, both its content and its praxis. Thematically, the novel shares many of the same elements with electronic dance music — the erotic, the foreboding, the melancholy, the mystical, the vaguely orientalist. There are reasons that electronic dance music and club culture has been cited in scholarly articles about modern forms of religious or spiritual practice. James himself thinks along these lines — one of his dreams in captivity describes:
…a Lenten carnival. A Christ-like figure on a carnival float was leading a crowd of young people in a dance. The music was techno. The street was narrow. Bodies were pressed up against old buildings…the Christ and the crowd repeated over and over with their hands a thousand years of love, a thousand year of peace.
(The bacchanal is cut short by a suicide bomber.)
Electronic dance music invokes mystical themes, with lines like “This is my church” or nonsense about the ocean: “Open my eyes/ Bigger/ Listen to us/ Swimming in Saltwater.” Its beats are structured for maximum epiphany and release. It is culturally affiliated with mind-expanding drugs that promise vast sensation and awareness that will be lost in the morning. Submergence too encourages spiritual-philosophical meditations about things you don’t really understand. The novel is full of information about the most mysterious parts of the planet and its inhabitants; never before have I heard about a Cuvier’s Beaked Whale, let alone pondered the romance of its liminal existence. Ledgard concludes an unforgettable description of decomposition and reanimation at the bottom of the ocean thus: “Hades is evolved to the highest state of simplicity. It is stable. Whereas you are a tottering tower, so young in evolutionary terms, and addicted to consciousness.” Submergence offers up a similar, if headier and wetter, line of inquiry than the bio-mathematics of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia: “We exist only as a film on the water,” Danny tells James. Whoa.
(This novel encourages you to look for the meaning of things. I learned later that “Hadal” is also the term for “word, “speech,” or “expression” in Somali. I don’t know what this means, but it just seems important. After all, the Angel Gabriel told Mohammed, “Recite”; the miracle Qu’ran was his recitation. For better or worse, this is the mode that Ledgard puts you into.)
Some of my interest in techno music is rooted in that yearning teenage place, trapped in a parental apartment and wishing to be out among the European youth, to whom everything, I erroneously believed, was permitted. The novel is finally calibrated to exploit yearning for the world. Danny and James embody the infinitely attractive versions of statelessness. She is a brilliant and great-looking woman of Australian and Martiniquan descent, with a cabin in Italy, an apartment in London, at home in Switzerland and the bottom of the ocean. James is both personally and professionally tied to his particular state, but he is still at home in the world, a speaker of Arabic. In his normal life you can find him among the Jacaranda trees, wearing linen shirts and eating breakfasts of “papaya and scrambled eggs, toast, and Kenyan tea.” These are cosmopolitans.
Americans are sensitive to the very existence of people this cosmopolitan, and they show poorly in the novel. They are the CIA guy in a food court talking over a terrorist’s errant appendage: “We think it’s an Arab hand, don’t we Bob?” They are on the boat with Danny, the un-fun ones who spend the voyage “sipping iced water,” who “purchase ugly expedition t-shirts.” The women “covered themselves in such loose-hanging cotton garbs…seldom wore high heels in their lives, and…felt [Danny] was a snob and an ice maiden.” Their hotels are “prefabricated, with piped music, airless corridors, tinted windows that would not open, circulated air that could not be shut off, a small plastic bathtub, chlorinated water…” Meanwhile, the British have “Chaucer to Dickens, the First World War poets, Graham Greene typing through the smog and drizzle” (and lots of club hits). The American reader is left feeling a bit resentful: Just you wait, motherfucker — our uniformity is contagious. And then Ledgard has the last laugh, because he shows the very American-ness of that instinct — the blind, obliterating force of American reaction:
It glinted. It burned from its tail. It was an astonishing creation. Entirely human, wholly American…It was impossible in the final moment not to see the missile as something more.
There are several versions of statelessness. In addition to Danny and James, there is the decidedly nasty kind, the men who leave home turf of Saudi, or Pakistan, or Afghanistan, or the United States, to come to Somalia and build a frontier of Jihad, a sad inversion of the roving Muslim scholars of centuries past. Jihadists are often described as harboring a medieval view of things, but this is in many ways an affront to medieval Islam, when the practice of religion and the pursuit of knowledge in the sciences and humanities were often the same thing. I think Ledgard knows, although one is never sure whether James More does, that without these Muslim scholars and their translations from Greek to Arabic and back to Greek, James More’s ancestor Thomas, his beloved Francis Bacon, might never have known their Classical philosophers. (Ironically, a real-life “Thomas More Law Center” exists, in benighted America of course, to forestall those “Radical Muslims and Islamic organizations in America” who “take advantage of our legal system and are waging a ‘Stealth Jihad’ within our borders.”) I disliked how little room the novel made for the non-Jihadi varieties of Islam, but why should it, I suppose, when More’s captors make even less?
Many critics have made passing reference to John le Carré as a point of departure for Submergence, since this novel, because of all the mythical deep and so forth, is so much more than just a spy novel. But some of its success, I think, lies in the dexterous deployment of elements of genre fiction. John le Carré is himself a departure and elaboration of genre. And while he is not poetic in the Ledgard mode, like Ledgard he is so observant, so fond of characterizations, and makes them in such a way — with the dangerous seduction of erudite British public servants — that you are certain they are true. Like the novels of John le Carré, who has a conscience and is often concerned with dark matters, Submergence thrums at the level of high genre from which wonderful novels emerge. Lonesome Dove (the ne plus ultra). Neuromancer. Charlie Smith’s Men in Miami Hotels.
High genre is fiction that allows you to investigate an individual text, because it is full of its own traits and merits, whether in its characterizations, its plot, or its prose. Regular genre, I suppose, is something you can only talk about as a family — tracing the themes shared collectively among its members. High genre will always be vulnerable to the taint of its lower peers, because it shares the equipment, the same beats. This is why people are drawn to True Detective, and yet can accept assertions that it is just another dead naked lady show. I mentioned the praxis of electronic dance music. Detractors would have it that this music is derivative noise, the artless patching together of beats at just the right frequency to make the ladies tear off their cardigans in the middle of the dance hall. These are the same kinds of things that people say about genre novels. But DJs (like medieval Islamic poets, in fact), demonstrate their mastery through use of the material of their peers and predecessors. You don’t always need to reinvent the wheel. You just need to be really good at spinning it.
There is some less-high genre at play in Ledgard’s novel, too. Rand Richards Cooper’s New York Times review of The Constant Gardener called le Carré “the writer who rescued the spy novel from the clutches of Ian Fleming by creating an anti-James Bond — the spy as brooding skeptic, whose freedom from conventional mores conferred not playboy romance but the loneliness of exile.” This was 2001, several years before the Bond franchise was reanimated in a darker key, with all the visual pleasures of earlier Bonds but decidedly more brooding. I’m thinking of the film Casino Royale, which, like Submergence and techno music, is sexy, sad, and possessing of high production values.
Ledgard wrote a scholastic hero and turns your head with trippy descriptions of oceans and molecular life, but some of his pleasures are carnal in the Bond tradition. Consider here, when Danny and James meet over Christmas at the Hotel Atlantic, a Ritz hotel on the French coast, which, with its copper bathtubs and Turcoman rugs, its lobster bisque and suckling pig, is probably the best approximation of one version of heaven in modern fiction. (The ceiling beams have been “soaked in milk for a year to harden them.”) In rustic French country splendor, as the snow blankets the world outside and the wind howls across the Atlantic, these sexy people meet for dinner. She, who will be described as both “a Persian and an alley cat,” is looking spectacular: “Her dress shimmered purple and brown and in and out of those colors, showing off her breasts and hips.” He wore “a blue suit with suede shoes and a gray Turnbull & Asser shirt. He had only his regimental cufflinks with him. A silver parachute on maroon.” As the snow pours, they eat:
…servings of duck foie gras with a peach wine jelly, Scottish scallops, ham, deboned saddle of lamb from the Auvergne, white beans with truffles, sea bream, poached apricots, bay leaf panna cotta, cheese and chocolates. They drank champagne, a house white wine, Rothschild Bordeaux, Chateau Villefranche dessert wine…
And more. They smoke cigarettes. They go upstairs and do it on the rug. By the middle of the novel I was Googling the hotel to see if it existed and if it were possible to get a room. It is now my single greatest material aspiration to stay in a hotel like this.
The Bond element resurfaces in funny little ways, as here, when James travels to a small island to track down the family of a terrorist. A sister cooperates, and after their interview, James has another request.
“You’ve been very kind,” he said. “Might I ask one more favor?”
“But of course.”
“I need a haircut. Do you think you could cut my hair?”
“I’ve never cut gold hair!”
They took a communal taxi across the town. They were squeezed in the back with another woman. He was buttock to buttock between the two…[she] rested her head absently on his knee.”
It’s such a pointless, comparatively light-hearted, pseudo-sexual, weirdly colonialist interlude, right out of Bond. I’ll cut your hair, I murmured to myself, picturing Daniel Craig.
Some people interpret the invocation of genre as a way to temper enthusiasm, which is not my goal here. I am very enthusiastic about this novel, because I found it transporting. Those dinners, those Bondian wine lists, those Condé Nast interiors, are so materially exciting that they do not necessarily detract. If the novel’s national and civilizational categories are shallow, its ecological meditations are deep, its imagery sublime. How can I forget the ship Challenger trawling an unexplored trench, its nets bringing up “slime that covered the inside of the dredge…all that remained of the most exquisite forms of millions of sea squirts, salp, and jellies, whose diaphanous musculature — more remarkable than any alien species yet conceived — had lost its form in air”? Like the dance music of my teens, Submergence takes me to another plane. I’m so young in evolutionary terms, after all, and addicted to consciousness.
Men in Miami Hotels plays a different kind of music and one that has stayed in my mind this year. The novel is a poet’s version of a crime story. Or more specifically the story of a gangster who makes off with buried treasure thus inviting mortal showdown with a finely rendered series of hoods and associates. Charlie Smith —— author of seven novels and seven books of poetry —— writes with a rhythm and precision that create from this time-honored sort of premise a new and entirely persuasive world. I am this moment admiring a single, 23-line sentence that describes emeralds, sex between longtime lovers, and the sun coming up in compelling visual language. Well, see for yourself. The emeralds are “glowing he said like little lit furnaces left over from worlds so long forgotten no one remembered there had ever been such worlds,” the lovers are “bumping and shoving as if in a locked trunk they were trying to get out of,” and “the dawn stumble[s] eventually to its feet out of the ocean’s basements beyond the scattered and brushy islands to the east.”
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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.