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.