In Search of the Great Miami Novel

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

"I don't care how smart they are," Antoni continues, sitting in his family's mid-Beach home, "there's just something in the air here. These people become sailors on shore leave. They're not discussing writing with me, that's for sure. You can literally watch the deterioration of their brains as you drive them across the causeway."

Antoni himself hasn't exactly been immune to this degeneration. It's been nine years since Paradise Overdose drew praise for its semiautobiographical account of sex and drugging across the Bahamas. "When my first book came out, everyone said, 'Oh, he's just a party guy.' Well, I've been doing research." He manages to keep a straight face for a few seconds before cracking a sheepish smile.

Antoni's Venus de Milo Arms (tentatively set for publication next year) delivers on Paradise Overdose's promise, deliciously capturing South Beach's evolution from God's Waiting Room to Mayberry on Ecstasy, taking in such notorious locals as door impresario John Hood, fashion designer Gianni Versace, and real estate mogul Thomas Kramer. A clubland fixture through it all, Antoni somehow managed to take copious and at times hilarious notes. "My agent hasn't had it vetted by a lawyer yet," he says with a mischievously raised eyebrow. "There might be a few changes."

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

Turning serious, he stresses that his new book isn't just about immortalizing the endless party. "When I moved here in 1987, you had all these Art Deco buildings full of old people who came here to die," he recalls. "And you had the first wave of AIDS retirees who also came here to die -- and they all dressed the same! Young people would buy the old people's clothes in vintage shops. They were all living side-by-side and these weird families would form, with everybody taking care of each other. When the ambulances would come, you'd never know who they were picking up."

Antoni sits back, rubbing his eyes, as if he's still not sure it all actually happened. "Where else could I live where Holocaust survivors would show me their tattoos, and at the same time I'd have to learn their neighbor's names -- both his male name and his female name. It gave me a chance to meet people I might otherwise have thought were freaks. If you learn nothing else from my book, I hope you learn tolerance."

Back at Books & Books, Mitchell Kaplan is counseling patience. The Great Miami Novel is coming; he can feel it. "If somebody moved here in 1995 as a 22-year-old, they're no longer a young person," he says excitedly. "The fabric of Miami has seeped into them by now. Just imagine the stories they have to tell!"

In the meantime Kaplan, and indeed the entire local literary crew, have a more immediate problem. "With bookselling, you're dealing with a pie that is not increasing, and the big players want a piece of that pie," he warns. Corporate chains, discounters such as Wal-Mart, and online retailers are all taking a bite. "That Books & Books is still in business says a lot about the community here in Miami."

Commercial competition, however, is far from the biggest threat to people like Kaplan. The New York Observer's Sara Nelson puts it this way: "The fact that very few people in this country read books is publishing's dirty little secret. A book can be on the best-seller lists for a couple of weeks and have sold 30,000 copies. Within publishing that's a reasonably good showing, but compared to, say, the music or movie or magazine business, where sales are measured in millions, it seems like nothing."

Kaplan nods gravely upon having Nelson's insight repeated to him. "Look at these conglomerates that have publishing houses as well as film departments and everything else," he says. "The publishing department is usually a little addendum, one percent of its sales, a footnote in the bottom paragraph of its annual report." His voice dropping to a near whisper, he adds solemnly, "Readers, we're a very small tribe. That's why we seek each other out. And why we have to cherish each other."

Miami Lit: Map

Miami Lit: Key

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