Paradise Found

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

"He remains sitting in this position for a moment, then simply collapses sideways onto the floor, drooling at the mouth, the dark stain on his shorts growing larger. Everyone laughs, but it occurs to me that this boy whom I've only just met may be about to die in front of me, and I get up and go over to him to try to sit him back up."

How about dialing 911! the reader wants to shriek. But Stuart isn't here to save souls or moralize. And in the end, instead of reaching the predictable and sanctimonious conclusion that his teenybopper cohorts comprise a lost generation, he winds up admiring their resilience, and finds a convincing optimism at the heart of their thrill-seeking.

"What draws me to them, I think, is what has always drawn people to America: a dream of beginning -- in my case, of beginning again," he writes. "I find them mostly easier to relate to than the Americans I know in their late twenties and thirties, whose optimism takes on a depressingly materialistic edge....

"Sometimes it seems as if a whole generation of adults has fallen apart and its children are trying to pick up the pieces. Mostly they do pretty well: they show more courtesy and respect than many of the adults around them; they have values of their own which they cling to."

As Dara Friedman, a long-time friend of Stuart who appears in the book, notes: "Here he is, he's forty years old hanging out with fifteen-year-old runaways and doing drugs and listening to their music -- he's complicit. He describes it and he's thoroughly accepting of it. It's an extended piece of journalism, but it's not American journalism. He's not necessarily drawing moral conclusions."

Stuart is happily at home with the ambivalence, contradiction, and bizarre paradoxes of life in Florida -- astonishing natural beauty subsisting in the midst of grotesque swaths of "development"; a mermaid at Weeki Wachee spring who dismantles her own mystique by explaining how not to "butt-kick" when you wear a mermaid costume; the blurry gender lines of the club scene; the absence, in prosperously nonindustrial Dade County, of any visible economic means of support beyond real estate, the drug trade, banking, and tourism; the odd, recurrent thesis that Miami is a "spiritual" place capable of inspiring inner peace in the midst of carnality, commerce, and hedonism. Stuart lets his true-life characters draw the conclusions, and if they sometimes talk too much, one forgives them for it.

The pseudonymous John Hood, a Yale-educated nightclub bouncer and con man, pops up in his fedora throughout the book: "Miami's history is purely that of the carpetbagger or the criminal," he asserts. "Selling swampland. It's the grifter. I think it's the first city to be founded upon the merits and the true definition of grifting. And it was the first city where the class of the grifter was less important than his talent. A good grifter, be he blue-blood or barbaric, can make it.

" I think making money down here and having great ideas are sure to succeed. But they rank in a dubious realm compared to surviving with your spine intact. Down here I feel it's real easy to trance yourself out and wake up in the morning and dump yourself in the cleansing waters of South Beach. I think it's the last best place for decadence. You could swallow a jellyfish, step on a bottle, have unsafe sex and, after an eight-ball evening, still feel like, 'Well, I'm OK! I've got a tan!'"

Stuart: "I like paradox and contradiction. Or it's not so much a question of liking them, it's who I am. What I like about here is that the paradoxes and contradictions are so bizarre, the obvious one being Disney World. You go there and you're in the middle of this agricultural land, and okay, maybe it's not the most beautiful landscape in the world, but it's nature. Then you have this extraordinary plastic palace. In some ways it could be ugly, but in other ways it's beautiful. The Florida Keys are like that. I'm sure there are people who say, 'You have these beautiful islands, and building the roads and bridges to some degree destroyed the natural beauty.' Now to me there's a majesty of engineering there that in itself is quite spectacular. Driving over the Seven Mile Bridge is almost like flying, it's really an incredible experience. The old railroad bridge, which was partly knocked out in the 1935 hurricane, adds even more beauty; it's not a blot on the landscape, it makes the Keys that much more extraordinary."

Stuart's refusal to draw moral conclusions is apparent once more when he turns his highly personal and episodic story toward Miami's alter ego, Havana. After noting his bias to be that of a nominal socialist sympathizer, and acknowledging the catalogue of faults attributable to Castro's dictatorship, he takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of Graham Greene territory, refreshingly unconstrained by the usual anti-communist orthodoxy Miamians have come to accept as political Muzak. The fact that the first of two journeys to Cuba (one in 1990, one in 1994) is largely a treasure hunt for cheap grass and underground nightclubs is either hilarious or a snoozer depending on your literary and personal taste.

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