In Search of the Great Miami Novel

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

Lamazares is much too modest to posit her Miami story as the Miami story. And for all The Sugar Island's engaging familiarity -- a young girl raised in the cradle of the Cuban revolution finds herself uprooted to, adrift in, and finally at peace with Hialeah -- Lamazares is undoubtedly the first transplanted Habanera to open her tale with an epigram from that master of Yiddishkeit, Saul Bellow.

Still, it's worth considering: Is the Cuban-exile saga natural fodder for the Great Miami Novel? Is everything else just colorful supporting detail? After all, what is the contemporary history of this city but the story of the Cubans, many arriving with literally nothing but the shirts on their backs, transforming Miami from a Southern town into the cosmopolitan Gateway of the Americas. As local poet Carolina Hospital wryly notes in her How the Cubans Stole Miami: "Only in Miami is a Jew an Anglo." Surely then, if critic Martin Amis can say that Bellow's Chicago-based, Jewish-immigrant tale The Adventures of Augie March is "the Great American Novel, search no further," why shouldn't Cuban exiles be eligible for the same honor?

Moreover, at their best, exile stories, such as Reinaldo Arenas's breathtakingly hallucinatory memoir Before Night Falls, aren't just sterling examples of Cuban writing; they're examples of powerful writing -- period. Witness the title story of Ana Menéndez's 2001 collection, In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd. As Menéndez's piece builds, Máximo, once a University of Havana professor, sits in a Little Havana park, playing dominos and forlornly trading jokes. He relates the tale of Juanito, a little dog freshly arrived from Cuba, strolling past Brickell Avenue's impressive skyscrapers when he's brought up short by the sight of a gorgeous white poodle. But Juanito's dinner-date entreaties get him nowhere.

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

All this time the white poodle has her snout in the air. She looks at Juanito and says, "Do you have any idea who you're talking to? I am a refined breed of considerable class and you are nothing but a short, insignificant mutt." Juanito is stunned for a moment, but he rallies for the final shot. He's a proud dog, you see, and he's afraid of his pain. "Pardon me, your highness," Juanito the mangy dog says. "Here in America I may be a short, insignificant mutt, but in Cuba I was a German shepherd."

Menéndez packs more effective poignancy into one short story than can be found in 44 years of newspaper op-ed clippings. Yet for all of Menéndez's ability to turn trauma into poetry, a question lingers, the same one that haunts Lamazares's work, and indeed most of their contemporaries: Where are the stories of immigrants coming of age in Miami today?

This generational gap is hardly unique to Cuban exiles. Miami-Dade College professor Geoffrey Philp, the Jamaican-born author of the novel Benjamin, My Son, remembers the reaction to his last collection of poems. He had ended that book with an ode to the Everglades, a lyrical westward gaze that prompted several of his countrymen to accuse him of "selling out." Says Philp: "When you get off the plane in Miami, your first impulse is to write of your exile. Some of my fellow writers have never moved beyond that."

Ivonne Lamazares freely admits that the impulse also is evident in those arriving from Havana. "I haven't been able to set my work completely in the United States," she says. "Like a lot of writers of my generation, I'm still mentally traveling back and forth." For her next novel, Some Realms I Owned, she is moving forward -- a bit -- to 1989, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting world-turned-upside-down that ensued in Cuba. The key, she says, is distance -- both aesthetic and physical. "When I'm in Miami, it seems like the center of the universe," she laughs. But since moving to Orlando for a teaching job two years ago, she's realized that Miami is merely "the center of the Cuban-American universe."

One piece of the literary puzzle is still missing: South Beach. For all the Beach's current visual prominence, from movies to stacks of glossy mags, it remains strangely absent from the literary world. True, fiction writers (especially screenwriters) love to use South Beach as backdrop, but never as text itself. How is it possible that the vaunted American Riviera, with its legendary debauchery -- a playground of slumming starlets, Italian lotharios, fabulous queens, and sixteen-year-old models -- has eluded the literati?

Perhaps artistic pretensions are impossible in a town that considers the thong a highlight of Western civilization, suggests Thane Rosenbaum. His own darkly comic novels, such as Second Hand Smoke, are fixated on the Miami Beach of his Seventies childhood: racial school busing, Cuban classmates who were "learning a new language while trying to re-create the island," and "Holocaust survivors trying to suntan over their painful memories." Rosenbaum lives in New York City now, which only makes him more curious about the Beach's present literary void, especially given the number of authors who regularly wing down to South Florida.

"Oh, New York writers mention South Beach in passing," Brian Antoni offers dryly, pausing a beat for effect. "And that's exactly how they experience it." Antoni should know. The Paradise Overdose author has played nightlife tour guide to scores of these Manhattanites, both high- and low-art denizens -- from the late George Plimpton, who decked himself out in drag for a Halloween club crawl, to Sex and the City chronicler Candace Bushnell, who capped a raucous Miami Book Fair shindig by whipping off her clothes and diving into Antoni's pool.

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