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?
The Compleat Angler, Izaak Walton’s 1653 book (pdf) of practical advice, poems, songs, and dialogues about fishing, ends with the intonation “study to be quiet.” The phrase comes from the first book of Thessalonians. Walton would likely have been familiar with the King James Version of the phrase, which reads, “And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you.”
The connection between fishing and religion remains. Holly Morris notes in her wonderful essay, “Fumbling After Grace,” “both fishing and writing are largely acts of faith: you believe that there is indeed a rich run of ideas lurking below. The convoluted first drafts, the false casts and hooked branches are all a part of some cosmic ritual designed to seduce a shiny gem to the surface. You get a nibble and your mind sings as you play the idea and reel it in. Only sometimes is it a keeper.” Faith is what brings anglers back to shallow streams, and what brings writers back to imperfect drafts.
Faith might also allow anglers and writers to release. The narrator of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish,” “caught a tremendous fish,” and admires her take. Her meticulous description makes the fish singular, and reveals the pride of a catch as “victory filled up / the little rented boat.” She ultimately lets the fish go, well aware that this exact dance might be repeated. After all, were the fish not free to begin with, fishing would not exist. In “Trout are Moving” by Harry Humes, freedom happens “past midnight,” when those who would seek fish are asleep. Humes imbues a mystical element to the trout’s movement, but also connects the fish to humans. The trout turns in the water, but it is not panicked or startled; rather, it is “just a sinking away / through the ordinary morning stillness / of the house.” Halieutic works might be often surreal, but the actual sport of fishing is tactile, like writing.
Both manual actions “can give you hand cramps.” Holly Morris finds deeper connections between the pursuits. Anglers and writers share a “masochistic urge to wake in the predawn hours and stumble with loaded thermos toward an icy cold stream to catch something you ultimately let go,” which “is not dissimilar to the quirky yearnings that guide a writing life.”
Some of my favorite writers at the sentence level–Ernest Hemingway, Thomas McGuane, and Jim Harrison–find similar connections between writing and fishing. For Stephen L. Tanner, Hemingway’s trout fishing in Paris was emblematic of his transition from journalism to fiction writing, from “having memories to creative remembering.” His literary representations of fishing abound, including The Old Man and the Sea, the calm and communal scenes between Jake Barnes and Bill Gorton in The Sun Also Rises, and the adventures of Nick Adams in “The Big Two-Hearted River.” But I have always been most interested in lines from Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway’s non-fiction account of bullfighting, that capture the paradox of fishing: “we speak of killing a trout with a rod. It is the effort made by the trout that kills it.” No matter how skilled or well-equipped an angler might be, the fish is in control.
Of course this leads anglers to seek even more methods to tip the scales in their favor. For Thomas McGuane, “tools of elegance and order, developed and proven in the sporting life, are everywhere useful.” Fishing is not simple recreation; it is a way to combat against the “fragmentation and regret” of daily complacency, a “way of looking at the world.” Owing perhaps to the “particular culture” of his Irish-Catholic upbringing, McGuane recalls the ritualistic approach of an old fishing buddy: “He had a bailing can that was an old Maxwell House can, cut off in this perfect way. Always went there. Oars went there. After you anchored the anchor went here, the line was coiled there. [His old wooden rowboat] wasn’t worth a hundred dollars. It was nearly all he had, but it was so deeply ritualized that it had a kind of glow.”
In the preface to The Longest Silence, his collection of essays on fishing, McGuane strikes a conservationist tone, concluding “we have reached the time in the life of the planet, and humanity’s demands upon it, when every fisherman will have to be a riverkeeper, a steward of marine shallows, a watchman on the high seas. We are beyond having to put back what we have taken out. We must put back more than we take out.” He revels in the otherness of anglers. The sport “is extremely time consuming. That’s sort of the whole point.” In our high-speed moment, “anglers, as a kind of preemptive strike, call themselves bums, addicts, and maniacs. We’re actually rather quiet people for the most part but our attitude toward time sets us at odds with our own society.”
There are two levels of time embedded in McGuane’s discussion. First, the desire to exit daily strictures of appointments and responsibilities, when our time is owned by others. The second level includes the micro bursts of focused time within the angling act, a sport that shifts from hours of waiting to swift moments of drama. That attitude toward time is shared by writers, and few are as adept at manual shifting between sentences as McGuane. His early novels, particularly Ninety-Two in the Shade and The Sporting Club, move between sarcasm, violence, and sublimity. McGuane’s friend and fellow novelist, Jim Harrison, shares a love for fishing, and the skill of literary transition. A Good Day to Die, his acerbic short novel, begins with the most ominous author’s note in history (“Certain technical aspects of the handling of explosives have been deliberately altered and blurred to protect innocent life and property.”), shifts to an epigraph from Rainer Maria Rilke (“Each torpid turn of this world bears such disinherited children to whom neither what’s been, nor what is coming, belongs.”), before settling into the prologue, where a hungover narrator awakens in a boat off Cudjoe Key, wanting to “catch the incoming tide and what fish would there looking off that huge sandspit toward the rank mangroves.” The novel’s wayward characters binge on drugs and sex, and fishing is the only salve, the only possibility for a soul.
In his own life, Harrison says “when you bear down that hard on one thing–on your fiction or your poetry–then you have to have something like cooking, bird hunting or fishing that offers a commensurate and restorative joy.” More than even McGuane, Harrison has been reduced by some critics as the prototypical macho writer. Yet Harrison rejects “sorry bumpkin mythologies.” The best anglers are the “most modest,” and never “identified their sports with our culture’s banal notions of manhood, which is a matter of costumery rather than substance.” Harrison’s sclerotic characters are also costumes. He wonders why “is it macho that I like to hunt and fish? I’ve been doing it since I was four. I have always thought of the word macho in terms of what it means in Mexico: a particularly ugly peacockery, a conspicuous cruelty to women and animals and children, a gratuitous viciousness . . . critics have an enormous difficulty separating the attitudes of your characters from your attitudes as a writer.” One can feel Harrison pushing back against comparisons with Hemingway, who he once said seemed like a “woodstove that didn’t give off much heat.”
We do not need to love our forebears to have been formed by them. What Hemingway, McGuane, and Harrison all share is a stylistic tendency to be both methodical when describing action, but also to layer narrative asides. These aberrant pockets of dialogue or description that might be pared by other writers give flesh and fire to their stories. Anglers spin yarns, and a good tale needs sufficient detail, along with enough oddity to warrant repetition. Fishing begins with base materials, as listed by the narrator of Harrison’s A Good Day to Die: “An open face Shakespeare Ambassador reel and a stout casting rod with a tackle box full of daredevils, pikie minnows, jitterbugs, mepps, spoons. And wire clip leaders.” But the sport becomes art when those materials and equipment are in able hands.
I have neither the skill nor the experience fishing of these writers, but I share their appreciation for the sport. I grew up fishing in suburban New Jersey, where lakes and rivers dot the flat landscape. We had to renew our licenses each year, and safety-pin them to our baseball hats. Back then fishing was a way to relax after basketball practice, or to avoid doing AP Calculus homework. We caught more sunnies than bass. It wasn’t fishing; it was fooling.
I only got serious about fishing when I got serious about writing, as an undergraduate in central Pennsylvania. I fished the Susquehanna River each morning with friends. I borrowed my brother’s chest waders, and stood in the current for hours, often without real results. A local fisherman told me to use a topwater lure called the Purple-D. “Two sets of hooks. Purple head, bright red eyes. Big bass like it, they jump up and grab it.” Not me. I never caught a bass, walleye, or anything else using it.
It is a small comfort that for even the best anglers, the vast majority of time on a river is spent waiting. The sequence of catch and keep, or catch and release, constitutes a fraction of time. And yet that is why anglers return. It was why I skipped class to stand in a river and cast above a rocked hole. It was why my wife and I studied old maps at the county library to find forgotten trails that led to small ponds. Fishing, like writing, is a stab at permanence in a world of waiting.
Water, sunlight, shadow, hunt, patience, search, silence: the elements of fishing are perfect fodder for writing, but they can also lead to sentimental lines and sentences. For every hour I spent in the soft current of Penn’s Creek, comfortable and warm in my waders, there were days when catfish snapped my lines. Fishing and writing hindsight are much the same. As Stephen L. Tanner says, “some of the best trout fishing is done in print rather than in streams.” Writing and fishing are both art forms built for optimists.
When Jim Harrison arrives at a fishing destination, “a number of centuries drift away. There’s no conscious sense of the atavistic, only that everything you’ve learned in school, university, your business life is of no use to you now.” I feel that sentiment when I run at an old moss farm near my home. The land is state-owned. Unkempt paths curl into the woods. One trail leads into a lake. There is no end; it simply goes into the water. I usually turn around. There is always so much to do. But some days I want to run straight into that silent lake and stand waist-deep. Fishing is not merely recreation; it is a source of creation. It is an art. I will always be haunted by waters.
William Giraldi spent more than half of his 2008 review (pdf) of Cary Holladay’s A Fight in the Doctor’s Office considering the etymology of “novella,” identifying the history and characteristics of the form, and suggesting essential writers. He claims that the demands of character development are one way to separate novellas from novels, noting that Gustave Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice does not require the 800 pages necessary for the titular character of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. Giraldi’s introductory thoughts seem like a rather long preface to evaluate a work of new fiction under 150 pages. Such an observation is not meant as criticism. To write about novellas is to engage in a form of literary apologia. Giraldi’s approach is the norm. Most reviews of novellas begin with similar elements: the writer’s arbitrary word count parameter, why “novella” sounds more diminutive than “short novel,” and a lament that publishers are unwilling to support the form.
This essay is not such an apology. I am tired of threnodies. Writers of novellas have nothing to be sorry about. Novellas deserve critical attention as individual, not adjacent, works. We might begin by mining appreciative notes rather than simply cataloging criticisms. Tucked between Giraldi’s prefatory critical observations in “The Novella’s Long Life” are notes of admiration: “an expert novella combines the best of a short story with the best of a novel, the dynamic thighs of a sprinter with the long-distance lungs of a mountaineer.” He continues a critical tradition whose modern genesis might have been the novella-loving 1970s, when even novels were short; think The Sporting Club and Ninety-Two in the Shade by Thomas McGuane, or A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison. In a 1972 essay he would later develop into a book, Robert J. Clements considers the oral tradition behind the novella form as helping him “define its length as long enough for a dry split birch log to be consumed by a blazing bivouac fire.” That image was still popping in 1977, when Graham Good, in the journal NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, almost elevates the novella beyond the novel, noting that the shorter work often focuses on “simple natural or preternatural exigencies: apparitions, cataclysms like great storms or earthquakes, and individual declines or deaths.” Of course novels also contain deaths, but it’s the speed and tension that matters: the “novella is a closed form whose end is latent in its beginning: there is usually some initial indication that the end is known, and this enhances the narrative art of holding in suspense what it is.”
Fast-forward to very recent memory. At The Daily Beast in 2010, Taylor Antrim considers the focus on novellas by presses such as Melville House and New Directions, and the publication of the “wispy thin” Point Omega by Don DeLillo and Walks With Men by Ann Beattie, as proving that the form is in “pretty healthy shape.” Citing works as diverse as “The Dead” by James Joyce and Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin, Antrim claims that “novellas are often structurally syncopated…their effect tends to be not instantaneous but cumulative.”
In “The Three-Day Weekend Plan,” from the 2011 anthology The Late American Novel, John Brandon offers a tongue-in-cheek suggestion: hoard your novella. Best to “downplay the novella in casual conversation,” and instead keep the form to “ourselves, the adults.” The novella is a personal document, something that will “let us find out, in the writing, how we truly write.” Work to keep in a closet or desk drawer, “away from any and all publishing apparatus.”
In “Notes on the Novella,” published that same year in Southwest Review, Tony Whedon waxes lyric about the form: “novellas are not so much told as dreamed aloud; they inhabit a realm of half-shapes and shadowy implication.” Historically, they “[thrive] on travel and adventure and [are] often set in exotic climes.” Whedon stresses the need for control, and uses language that mimics John Gardner’s oft-quoted definition of the form: all “subplots need subordinating to their main storyline.” That control, in the formal sense, enables time and tense shifts. That temporal compression increases tension and pacing, resulting in a “swirly and gunky” effect. Novellas are “implosive, impacted, rather than explosive and expansive.” I read this as novellas refract rather than reflect. They are something shaken, but not spilled.
“The Return of the Novella, the Original #Longread” by Jon Fassler appeared last year at The Atlantic. Fassler laments that novellas are tucked into short story collections as an afterward, or packaged with other novellas to be “sold as a curiosity.” Although Fassler’s piece is primarily a profile of Melville House’s success with re-issuing older works in their “Art of the Novella” series, he concludes that “a renaissance in the mid-length non-fiction” form, the “journalistic equivalent of the novella,” is enabled because of electronic editions.
Upon the release of his 2012 novel Sweet Tooth, in which a character publishes a novella, Ian McEwan quipped a series of imagined critical reactions to the short form in The New Yorker: “Perhaps you don’t have the necessary creative juice. Isn’t the print rather large, aren’t the lines too widely spaced? Perhaps you’re trying to pass off inadequate goods and fool a trusting public.” McEwan confidently calls the novella the “perfect form of prose fiction,” citing a “long and glorious” lineage: Mann, James, Kafka, Conrad, Camus, Voltaire, Tolstoy, Joyce, Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, Steinbeck, Pynchon, Melville, Lawrence, and Munro.
A few weeks earlier, at that year’s Cheltenham Festival, McEwan claimed that he “would die happy” if he “could write the perfect novella.” Although he worries the form is unseemly for publishers and critics, readers love that they could “hold the whole thing structurally in your mind at once.” Inverting the typical criticism, McEwan claims that the “novel is too capacious, inclusive, unruly, and personal for perfection. Too long, sometimes too much like life.” In sarcastic response, Toby Clements at The Telegraph thinks that McEwan is “lucky to be allowed to publish novellas.” Clements quotes Philip Rahv, who says that the novella form “demands compositional economy, homogeneity of conception, concentration in the analysis of character, and strict aesthetic control.” Returning to McEwan, Clements considers the foolishness of word and page count definitions. At 166 pages, On Chesil Beach was considered a novella by McEwan, but a short novel by the Booker prize judges. Giraldi notes that “Adultery” by Andre Dubus is identified as a short story in one collection, and a novella in another. I would add Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor to that list. I have defaulted to italics appropriate for a short novel, but many consider the work a novella. Confusion, idiosyncrasy, beauty: welcome to the world of the novella.
While charting the lineage of novella discussions is worthwhile, as a writer of the form I am most interested in application. Perhaps the most writer-friendly treatment in recent memory is “Revaluing the Novella” by Kyle Semmel from the December 2011 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle. Rather than formal comparison, Semmel focuses on what successful novellas contain. Like Giraldi and Whedon, Semmel applies John Gardner’s definition of a novella, as explicated in The Art of Fiction. He supports Gardner’s claim that novellas move through a series of small climaxes. Semmel rightly stresses the “series” element of the definition. The mode of the novella is athletic, forward-leaning.
Gardner splits his definition to contain three modes of novellas: single stream, non-continuous stream, and pointillist. The nomenclature might be idiosyncratic, but Gardner’s criticism was always homegrown. Semmel adds to Gardner’s discussion: often novellas contain “resolution; there is closure.” He admits that the point might sound obvious, but it stresses that novellas are not meant to be top-heavy or flimsy. A necessary point to make, as even Antrim, an admirer of novellas, claims that the form “has ambivalence built into its DNA…[it] serves up irresolute endings.”
Semmel considers a range of examples, from “Voices from the Moon” by Andre Dubus to Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates. He also considers “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” by William H. Gass, but quickly dismisses the work as a “gangly prose poem” of more interest to “literary scholars” than readers. My literary heart sunk. I have loved Gass’s longer novella, “The Pedersen Kid,” ever since it was recommended to me by novelist Tom Bailey, while I was an undergraduate at Susquehanna University. Bailey thought novellas were defined by time—a season or a weekend—and Gass’s piece was offered as an example.
Gardner devotes several sentences to that longer-titled, shorter work, but spends pages explaining why “The Pedersen Kid” is “a more or less perfect example of the [novella] form.” It is important to note that Gardner stressed not only the stream of climaxes, but that they were “increasingly intense.” Yet what interests me most is Gardner’s further qualification that these climaxes are “symbolic and ritualistic.”
It should not be surprising that Gardner loves this novella: Gardner published it in 1961 in his magazine, MSS. Gass’s novella nabbed the magazine thirty charges of obscenity, one of which, co-editor LM Rosenberg shares, was “‘nape,’ as in neck.” Federal fines caused the magazine to fold after three issues, but Gardner never stopped appreciating the novella. His summary of the plot: “In some desolate, rural landscape . . . in the dead of winter, a neighbor’s child, the Pedersen kid, arrives and is discovered almost frozen to death near Jorge’s father’s barn; when he’s brought in and revived, he tells of the murderer at his house, a man with yellow gloves; Big Hans and Pa decide to go there, taking young Jorge; when they get there, Jorge, making a dash from the barn to the house, hears shots; Big Hans and Pa are killed, apparently — Jorge is not sure — and Jorge slips inside the house and down cellar, where at the end of the novella he is still waiting.”
I reread the novella each winter. I also revisit Gass’s preface to the collection, which explains the composition of “The Pedersen Kid.” He “began by telling a story to entertain a toothache.” Such a story must contain “lots of incident, some excitement, much menace.” After weeks of writing he “began to erase the plot to make a fiction of it.” He “tried to formulate a set of requirements for the story as clear and rigorous as those of the sonnet.” He cast away a focus on theme for devotion to the “necessity for continuous revision, so that each word would seem simply the first paragraph rewritten, swollen with sometimes years of scrutiny around that initial verbal wound.”
“The Pedersen Kid” was planned end-first, with all action “subordinated” toward “evil as a visitation — sudden, mysterious, violent, inexplicable.” It was “an end I could aim at. Like death.” And yet, also like death, “I did not know how I would face it.” He imagined the book as a work of visual art: “the physical representation must be spare and staccato; the mental representation must be flowing and a bit repetitious; the dialogue realistic but musical. A ritual effect is needed. It falls, I think, into three parts, each part dividing itself into three.” Three also correlates to the story’s main characters — Jorge, Big Hans, and Pa — who enter the blizzard to find the Pedersen’s abandoned home. Although Whedon does not consider Gass’s work in his essay, it fits one of his theses that symbols in novellas “present themselves orchestrally in the form of leitmotifs that dovetail with disparate time sequences to create a strong over-arching moral theme: hence the novella’s connection with allegory.”
Gass’s novella contains extended spaces between words, which John Madera calls “caesuras,” and Samuel Delany thinks are “actual suspensions of sound.” Gass says that he “wanted pages that were mostly white. Snow.” He practiced typographical and pictorial experimentation in another novella, Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. The novella form is short enough to be both art and artifice. Experimentation does not become exhausting.
The novella is ritual: for Gardner, for Gass, for Whedon, for me, but for others?
Despite claims about the paucity of options, writers continue to draft and publish novellas in literary magazines and as standalone books. Big Fiction, At Length, A Public Space, PANK, New England Review, Seattle Review, Glimmer Train, and The Long Story have published novella-length work; The Missouri Review included one of my favorites, “Bearskin” by James A. McLaughlin. Ploughshares Solos releases novellas as single e-books. Miami University Press and Quarterly West have revived their novella contests. Iron Horse Literary Review holds an annual chapbook contest that publishes a novella-length work during select years. Texas Review Press has its own annual contest, the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize. Readers and writers of speculative fiction continue to embrace the novella form. Consider Ted Chieng, Jason Sanford, and Kij Johnson; not to mention the nominees for the annual Hugo Award for Best Novella. The most recent winner was Brandon Sanderson, for The Emperor’s Soul.
Deena Drewis founded Nouvella, a press devoted solely to novellas, in 2011. Drewis initially considered works as low as 10,000 words, but became worried that some readers would consider such standalone books as “long short [stories].” She admits that defining a novella is difficult, and instead uses the work of Andre Dubus, Jim Harrison, and Alice Munro as formal affirmations.
At 4 x 6 inches, Nouvella books can feel too bulky beyond 40,000 words, so form requires practical function. Her longest release, The Sensualist by Daniel Torday, “occupies more temporal space” than her other books. Torday told Drewis the work had originally been a novel, but she received the manuscript “pared down to its working limbs. It doesn’t feel compacted the way a short story is often a work of compression, but it also doesn’t take the liberty of meandering, like a novel sometimes does.”
Nouvella’s stated mission is to “find writers that we believe have a bright and dedicated future in front of them, and who have not yet signed with a major publisher.” She finds that the form is “a good point of entry for readers to discover emerging authors.” If readers enjoy a short story from a new writer, they need to do the legwork to find other stories, “or wait until a collection comes out, but that requires a good deal of dedication and perseverance.” Instead, a novella “allows you to spend a little more time inside the author’s head, and because it’s a stand-alone book, it demands more attention from the reader. It’s also not a novel, which for readers, can seem like a big commitment.”
Drewis is prescient: Daniel Torday’s debut novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, will be published in 2015 by St. Martin’s Press. Such evolution is not exclusive to Nouvella. Andrew Ervin’s Extraordinary Renditions, a collection of three novellas from Coffee House Press, preceded his forthcoming debut novel, Burning Down George Orwell’s House. Mark Doten, who acquired Ervin’s title for Soho Press, notes that “having a strong favorable opinion” of Ervin’s shorter work “was certainly a factor [but not the only one]…in that book going to the top of my reading pile.”
Of course writers are not simply drawn to the novella form for its exposure opportunities. Tim Horvath has always written fiction “on the long side…[before he] knew a thing about word counts and literary journals and what they were looking for.” “Bridge Poses,” his 9,000 word story, was published in New South, yet he was unable to publish another, longer work, Circulation, in literary magazines. An editor at AGNI, while encouraging, “warned that it would be difficult to publish in a journal because of its length.” Bradford Morrow, the editor of Conjunctions, wrote some paragraphs in support of the work, and that convinced Horvath to remain with the piece. Sunnyoutside Press ultimately released the novella as a book, and Horvath appreciated how the story’s manageable length meant that the work’s “cartographic and library obsessions” could be “echo[ed] throughout the design elements of the book.”
Horvath is drawn to “stories that feel as though they encompass multitudes, that take their sweet time getting going, that have a leisurely confidence in themselves, that manage nonetheless to feel urgent, their scale necessary.” That macro approach can be compared with Peter Markus, whose novella collection, The Fish and the Not Fish, is forthcoming from Dzanc Books: “every word in this new collection is monosyllabic, [and] you would maybe think that such limitation would limit such things as the length of the piece, how much can and can’t be done, how long such a project might be sustained. The interesting thing here is that the restriction worked the other way. The river flowed up the mountain, so to speak.” Markus has always been interested in “short novels or long stories” like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, “The Pedersen Kid,” Faulkner’s “The Bear,” Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Kerouac’s Visions of Gerard, and the novellas of Jim Harrison.
The novella form’s length afforded Horvath and Markus a particular sense of control over structure and presentation. The same approach might be applied to The Mimic’s Own Voice by Tom Williams, which he viewed as a “parody of an academic essay.” After he published a story in Main Street Rag, the journal’s publisher, M. Scott Douglass, approached Williams about being a part of the press’s new novella series. The form matched the writer: Williams wonders who would not appreciate “fiction that equally borrows the short story’s precision and the novel’s potency.” Williams uses the same word as Gardner — “perfection” — to describe the unique tightness of novellas, citing his list of favorites: Cataclysm Baby by Matt Bell, Nothing in the World by Roy Kesey, Honda by Jessica Treat, Seize the Day by Saul Bellow, Sula by Toni Morrison, and Goodbye Columbus by Philip Roth.
My own forthcoming novella, This Darksome Burn, began as an experimental, long story; early readers thought it a one-act play. I expanded the manuscript to a novel, reaching 300 pages, but was unsatisfied. Subplots upon subplots had blurred the central narrative. I started-over a year later. I turned the manuscript into a pitch, treatment, and finally a film script. Thought was subverted to action. Everything existed on the page. The script became a novella, and Erin Knowles McKnight, my editor and publisher at Queen’s Ferry Press, suggested I switch to present tense, which allowed me to increase the story’s immediacy. My dark story about an overprotective father in the shadow of the Siskiyou Mountains had found its form: a novella. I had found my form: I placed a novella about opium traffickers and atomic bomb scientists in storySouth, and another novella about a defrocked priest is coming from CCM Press in 2015.
I have practical and ritual reasons for being drawn to novellas. I am the father of five-month-old twin girls, and my writing is done in bursts, late at night. I spend my days living—preparing bottles, changing diapers, writing reviews, teaching, having lunch duty in my high school’s cafeteria, mowing the lawn, and watching my girls grow—but the cadences of story remain like a faint metronome. My old office will become a playroom for the twins, so I have migrated to a smaller room downstairs, the walls lined with books, and, proper to my Italian Catholic sensibility, a cross above the doorframe. I close the door, and in a small space, within a small page amount, I try to write stories that stretch their invisible seams. I love novellas. That doesn’t mean I won’t attempt a novel, or short stories, or essays, or poems. But my heart is set on that form that feels both mysterious and manageable. No apologies needed for that.