Paradise Found

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

Stuart has a habit of picking the most obtuse and seemingly superficial features of the landscape and then actively rediscovering their significance. In the hands of a lesser writer this technique would often fall flat, and sometimes it does in Life on Mars. Stuart points out that "you could die in Palm Beach and not know it," and then spends seven pages proving the point. His travels through Arcadia and the nearby sugar country are little more than perfunctory jibes at north Florida's hardscrabble trailer trash.

In a different way, the author fails when he tries to use Disney World as a prism through which to clarify the American dream. It's an old aesthetic chestnut, and Stuart says he probably wouldn't try it again if given the chance. The episode at "Mousechwitz" owes too much to the stylistic innovations of gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson and is hampered, ironically, by Stuart's having thought a lot in advance about his target. Generally, the author's approach to his subject matter is consciously unstudied: "I never actually sat down in the library or at a computer and accessed the books that had already been written about Miami," he explains. "I think I was afraid of being too influenced by something else, or too analytical. Once I was here I found that reading about here wasn't something I wanted to do. I found that I didn't want my response to the place to be affected too much.

"When I first wanted to make films -- I was fourteen or thirteen -- the very first serious eight millimeter film that I made at home was a ten-minute biography of Walt Disney," Stuart says. "From that time onwards I read a great deal about Disney himself. Like everyone else, I grew up on Disney films, and I loved some Disney films enormously. The Jungle Book I think is a wonderful movie; I loved Snow White; I loved Pinocchio, Fantasia, some of the animal films. But then as I grew older I learned about Disney's record in labor relations, which is not exactly shining; and also, as much as you can judge these things, I think maybe, yeah, Disney has had too great an impact on some aspects of the culture.

"How the hell to write about Disney World? There are these teenage graduation nights where everybody loads up on acid or whatever and they have this strange all-night thing at Disney World. I had heard this story, probably a myth, about some kids pushing a Donald Duck figure into a lake and drowning him. I just don't know how you write about the place. Disney World is kind of one of those things that's just there; it's almost beyond analysis. It's some people's favorite chapter, and I'm really surprised because I don't feel that it's one of the most successful parts of the book."

Things pick up again when Stuart hits Gibsonton, better known as Carnie Town, where he passes an amazing afternoon at the Showtown Lounge and Package Store interviewing Pepe Arturo, son of the legendary high wire artist the Great Arturo. The book kicks into high gear back in Miami where Stuart surfs through the defining moment of the city's present decade -- Hurricane Andrew -- and rides shotgun with a police officer in Overtown, unintentionally witnessing his first homicide. (Positive proof of the writer's infectious gentility and kindness comes when Stuart describes a big fat cop as "a large, not entirely athletic individual.") Stuart finds an eerie link to railroad tycoon Henry Flagler and other early Florida pioneer millionaires in the person of local arts patron Mitchell Wolfson, with whom the author caroms through the Miami nightscape in search of pleasures both sensual and intellectual. Stuart had noticed Wolfson's private railroad car at the Miami Amtrak station, and months later had the opportunity to interview its owner.

"Micky [Wolfson] seemed to me like such an unexpected aspect of Florida, a Henry James kind of figure," Stuart says. "He seemed to be the opposite of the obvious gas station-shopping mall culture of America. A lot of Europeans have a very simplistic view of America. They think that America is just Kojak and Miami Vice and things they see in the movies. Micky, to a degree, represents the sort of extraordinary refinement that's here also. He's a very intelligent man. He has the kind of classical education that very few of us are getting any more. He has this enormous energy and this sort of little-boy-in-a-toy-shop quality, a mischievous side. And he's chosen to do some very interesting things with his money, including the choice to live here."

Perhaps the most poignant image Stuart confers upon the reader is the one he discovers at dawn in Key West during his final road trip. Next to a boat ramp on a tiny patch of sand, a young architecture student is building an astonishing sand castle, "a Gaudi-like palace of crenelated towers and terraces, intricate bridges and domes, which seem to defy gravity." To Stuart, working to rebuild his own life far from home, it seems "the clearest image of Florida you could have -- of transience and rebirth. The Overseas Railroad. BOOM! Build again. Hurricane Andrew. BOOM! Build again."

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