Paradise Found

British author Alexander Stuart exiled himself to South Beach before writing the aptly titled Life on Mars

Not long after the invention of carjacking, alert South Floridians noticed another hit-and-run phenomenon: the advent of the drive-by novel and the home-invasion travelogue. As practiced by such notable out-of-towners as Joan Didion (Miami), T.D. Allman (Miami: City of the Future), and David Rieff (Going to Miami), the nonfiction version of this strong-arm technique involves swooping into Miami International Airport, skimming old newspaper clips, attending a few dinner parties, and then jetting away to write with knowing aplomb the story of Miami's ethnic tensions, its tortuous political history, its crime and corruption problems, its enduring weirdness. During the past decade, intellectual carpetbaggers less talented than Didion, Allman, and Rieff have scoured the Rolex Coast in a perfervid treasure hunt for more and more subtropic exotica. Here there be drag queens, drug dealers, Santeria, hurricanes, would-be Castro-killers, and most recently a chief federal prosecutor who ended his civil service career by biting a topless dancer at a roadside strip joint. What writer could resist, even if the natives wish some would?

British expatriate Alexander Stuart and his new book Life on Mars therefore present a delicious quandary. On the face of it, the tall, unassuming 41-year-old Stuart is the ultimate outsider, a latter-day Robinson Crusoe who washed up on South Beach with all the mannered baggage of his English sensibility and background, and bereft of the two most basic tools of survival in modern South Florida: a command of spoken Spanish and a boat with a good outboard motor. The title of his book is a paean to the otherworldliness of his subject, but also a recognition of his own role as cultural astronaut. Stuart's great counterbalancing strength is this: After doing the swoop into MIA, he took notes for five years before sitting down to write. The resulting 247-page nonfiction exploration of Miami and the Sunshine State is an insightful, celebratory romp through terrain both loved and intimately known to its author. Not since John Rothchild's Up for Grabs, published in 1985, has a journalist written so broadly about Florida, while also managing to tease out the most telling particulars in its tumultuous, hothouse landscape. Like Rothchild, Stuart begins in Miami but ranges north of Lake Okeechobee and south to Havana, exploring the geographic and psychic continuum that begins and ends in our so-called Magic City.

The most appalling thing about Life on Mars is that you may have trouble finding a copy to read. After publication and favorable reviews in Britain (including one in the London Guardian by Carl Hiaasen), American publishers have so far failed to add the book to their lists, seemingly unresolved about whether Americans will want to read a sunburned Brit's account of Sodom South and the greater Florida experience. This is unfortunate because, among other things, Life on Mars is the best recent proof of how much Miami continues to benefit from the fresh perspective of outsiders, just as America has since Alexis de Tocqueville penned Democracy in America in 1835. Stuart reminds us how horrible and wonderful Florida felt when we first arrived, eyes wide open.

"One of the problems the book has had with New York editors is they feel that maybe there's a huge section of the American population that's very resistant to foreigners coming in and commenting on the country," Stuart says. "I met someone just the other night who said, 'You've been here almost six years. I've lived here all my life. What the hell do you know about Florida?' To me that's a totally valid criticism. There's a certain arrogance inherent in writing any book. But I think an outsider often has a really valuable perspective, a freshness."

"It seems to me that foreigners have been commenting on America for a long time, and we've learned a lot from them," says Cathy Steele, manager of Books & Books in Miami Beach. Steele says she sold out of ten copies of Life On Mars in a single day -- a batch imported from England -- but will soon have more on hand. Stuart, doing an experimental end-run around the New York publishing stranglehold, is supplying a few local bookstores, even tinkering with the idea of establishing an 800 number for potential readers.

In October 1990 Alexander Stuart came from Brighton to Miami to do a piece for British GQ magazine on the boxer Nigel Benn, who at the time was training inside the history-drenched Fifth Street Gym (now a parking lot) in preparation for a fight with Tommy Hearns in Las Vegas. After hanging around with Benn, Stuart tried to hammer out the story in his hotel room on deadline. There were multitudinous distractions:

"Men and women in micro skirts, micro shorts and tank tops glide on their rollerblades among the groups of Latinos, Anglos and tourists cruising the sidewalks and cycle-path which runs parallel to the beach," Stuart writes of his first glimpse of Ocean Drive. "Models, hustlers and hangers-on negotiate the common obstacles of any town: a hairy man with an iguana on a leash, a bikini-clad woman draped with a lithe, tongue-flicking python, a drag queen on stilts....

"I press on with work, feeling righteous, feeling moral, dealing swiftly and professionally with the latest problem to arise -- a deafening reggae party alongside the pool below my window -- by switching rooms to the other side of the hotel.

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