In Search of the Great Miami Novel

Surely there's more to local literature than crime and exile

Author James W. Hall was looking anything but professorial. He put his hands to his mouth and made a series of bird calls: "This is how we amused ourselves in Kentucky." As he began addressing the crowd gathered not long ago at the Miami Art Museum, grinning maniacally and resplendent in a loose Hawaiian shirt and scruffy beard, Hall seemed less like one of Florida International University's senior faculty members and more like someone who'd strayed from a Jimmy Buffett concert. The evening's panel discussion may have begun as a genteel examination of Miami's rich literary life -- with fellow panelists Joanne Hyppolite, a Haitian-American children's author; and Felix Lizrraga, a Cuban-exile poet and playwright -- but Hall wasn't about to deliver some hollow paean to cultural diversity.

"Do you remember that moment after Mariel?" he asked. "Do you remember the early Eighties in Miami?" Plenty of folks in the room did recall that fractious time, but whether they were Anglos, Latinos, or Haitians, their uneasy fidgeting indicated that few seemed eager to revisit it.

Clearly enjoying the rising discomfort, Hall pressed on, evoking that period in all its nightmarish glory: rampant civic corruption, race riots, a crime wave of epic proportions -- 621 murders in Dade County in 1981 alone. And all on the heels of a spate of bombings and shootings among outfits that were, as author Calvin Trillin archly put it, "either running drugs to raise money for fighting Fidel, or using the fight against Fidel as a cover for running drugs."

Mitchell Kaplan inside his Books & Books shop
Jonathan Postal
Mitchell Kaplan inside his Books & Books shop
Murder on the Beach's Joanne Sinchuk with another satisfied customer
Jonathan Postal
Murder on the Beach's Joanne Sinchuk with another satisfied customer

"Do you remember those bumper stickers you used to see?" Hall continued. "The ones that said, "Will the last American to leave Miami please bring the flag?'"

The tension was palpable now. One museum administrator nervously glanced in the direction of a security guard. Hall paused and then delivered his punch line: "Well, all those people left! And that's a good thing!"

There was at least one audible sigh of relief as the room deflated. Hall explained that today's Miami Anglos not only embraced the cultural shift, they reveled in it. He himself had stopped envying those with license plates that read Florida Native in favor of one that read Home At Last. For writers, though, now came the hard part. "The fast boats and cocaine cowboys -- all the clichés -- have been used up," Hall noted. "Now we have to dig down and figure out what this place really means. Where's our multiculti reality?" This need for reflection, he felt, applied equally to his own string of mystery novels.

Lizrraga, a Nineties arrival, nodded in agreement. Many of his fellow Miami exiles were asking themselves the same questions, and subsequently putting a new spin on that ugly post-Mariel bumper sticker. Lizrraga mockingly adopted a panicked cubano tone: "Where are all these Haitians and gringos coming from? They're invading our country!"

As if on cue, an angry woman's voice shot forth from the back row: "Why are you speaking in English? Most of us in this room speak Spanish!" How, this Latin-accented but perfectly enunciated English voice demanded, could Lizrraga discuss Miami literature in a foreign tongue? Did he realize how insulting he was being?

Lizárraga sat dumbfounded. Hall, on the other hand, beamed. His ear-to-ear smile said it all: Home At Last.

Any exploration of Miami's literary world would logically begin at Books & Books in Coral Gables. Whether they're crime novelists or postmodern theorists, born in Colombia or Connecticut, most local writers have quickly made their way to this store upon landing in town -- as featured speakers, advice seekers, or simply as devoted patrons lingering over the carefully arrayed tables.

Books & Books may have moved a block west on Aragon Avenue since its 1982 opening, and its current layout -- spacious interiors, tree-shaded courtyard, café -- is a far cry from its original cramped quarters. But by all accounts, 21 years later, owner Mitchell Kaplan still carries himself with the same combination of childlike enthusiasm and soft-spoken missionary zeal for the written word. Kaplan loves books, and he's not going to rest until you love them too.

"When I was a college student, I flirted with the idea of being a writer," he says while sitting at one of his store's courtyard tables, "but I didn't have the talent or the patience, all the things you really need. So I found this -- being a bookseller -- as a wonderful way to assuage that creative sensibility that may be within me, to help bring audiences to people's work."

An added benefit: He gets advance copies of his favorite authors' forthcoming works. But it's unclear just when he has time to actually read them. With the twentieth anniversary of the Miami Book Fair International looming, an event he helped to found and in which he maintains an intimate role by arranging more than 100 writers' panels, Kaplan's already hectic schedule is packed to the bursting point.

In the space of just one hour, he'll juggle tête-à-têtes with an Argentine cultural attaché playing chaperone to a pack of artists, a retired New York Times Miami bureau chief, a traveling Random House salesman, a steady stream of well-wishing customers, his own sales staff, a lunch date with his wife, and this interviewer, wondering how a city often denigrated by national pundits as a "cultural wasteland" built a book fair that annually pulls in 500,000 people -- the largest in America.

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