Paradise Found

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

"The only flaw in this arrangement is that the Clevelander, the hotel across the street from my new location, also has a party in progress, this one playing hormone-thrashing white rock and roll, and both events are set to finish, I'm assured when I enquire politely by telephone, at around four a.m."

Brits have an irrational faith in their pugilists, so it came as a shock to Stuart and his editors when the second-rate Benn got clobbered in a preliminary bout against Chris Eubank, lost the World Boxing Organization middleweight crown, and never got his five-million-dollar Vegas rendezvous with the Motor City Cobra. The magazine article fell apart, and Stuart, sensing a bigger and better story, joined the moveable feast outside his window at a time when Ocean Drive was just beginning its trajectory toward international stardom. He never left.

Initially, Stuart's failure to exit Florida was simple inertia. He arrived on U.S. soil an emotional shipwreck. Behind him in England lay a successful career as a screenwriter and novelist that included Tribes, a book about British soccer hooliganism, and The War Zone, a dark portrait of incest that both won and lost England's prestigious Whitbread Prize. (Hours after announcing that The War Zone had won, Whitbread judges scandalously reversed themselves, sparking a much-publicized debate over the value of literary prizes generally, while at the same time boosting book sales.) During the Eighties Stuart was executive producer of Insignificance, a film featuring Tony Curtis, Gary Busey, and Theresa Russell, and he wrote Agatha Christie's Ordeal by Innocence, starring Faye Dunaway. Behind him also lay the protracted illness and death from cancer of his five-year-old son, and his ensuing breakup with the child's mother.

"On the professional front, I was flying high, but on the personal front, I was grieving, definitely," Stuart recalls. "There were nights even after a couple years when I would wake up and lie on the floor and cry. I tried to embrace the sadness. Rather than pretend to be happy, I would put on Mozart's Requiem and try to experience it."

At the exact moment when Stuart needed a land of lotus eaters, he had stumbled across the next best thing: the world capital of second chances.

"I think I met him at one of [local novelist] Brian Antoni's parties," says Tom Austin, features editor for Ocean Drive magazine and poet laureate of the South Beach nightclub scene. "He was an odd figure. We were both older guys, middle-age guys bouncing around in this very young milieu. It's very different from the London club scene. In England, it's so much layers of hypocrisy and pretense and vestiges of the class system. South Beach is a great place to escape, and that's what he was doing. His personal situation was so horrible you can't even contemplate it, and he found a very seductive world here. He loves advanced music, post-techno stuff. I used to see him at raves, which were torture to me; he would be there dancing around, loving it. I don't think there's ever been a book that goes as far into South Beach as his does."

Stuart says: "The first year I was here I mostly went to the Island Club, which used to be on Washington Avenue, and that was largely because the first time I ever went in there I became friendly with the manager, and she introduced me to other friends and we did things together.

"Later there was a period when I got really into techno-clubs and there was one I would go to on Ocean Drive called Mayday. I knew between maybe 30 and 50 people there, not necessarily well, but I knew them. Again, I sort of felt welcomed. Having lost the core of my own family, I think there was an element of trying to find a new family, a casual family. As well as just losing myself in the music."

Life on Mars begins by chronicling the ultrahip social scene and tracing South Beach's physical transmogrification from deck chair ghetto to American Riviera. Stuart attends the eviction party at the Amsterdam that precedes Gianni Versace's refurbishment of the old hotel into a $12 million playpen. He notes the arrival of Madonna, Sylvester Stallone, Luciano Pavarotti, Chris Blackwell, and Ian Schrager, but builds his narrative around the anonymous players who populate the ragged fringes of celebrity. Soon he finds himself suspended in a floating world of hard-core club kids, runaways, and part-time drug dealers, most of them less than half his age. If the prospect of a middle-age English gentleman roaming around in a car full of adolescent girls and LSD makes you queasy, you'll become downright terrified when Stuart finds himself sniffing Freon in a Kendall apartment:

"The bag makes its way around the assembled group and reaches Raoul last. It is sagging a little now, so when Raoul brings it to his mouth he sucks deep ... deeper ... and again. There is a big 'Aaaaauuuh!' sound as he takes his last breath and holds it, keeping his lips shut in a happy grin.

"But next as I watch him, sitting there on the floor in the centre of the room, his eyes roll up, so that his brown irises are barely visible, his lips turn an ugly blue colour and a dark stain appears on his shorts where he has pissed himself.

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