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
Carl Hiaasen (top) and Ivonne Lamazares (bottom) offer two wildly variant -- and equally penetrating -- literary takes on Miami
Carl Hiaasen (top) and Ivonne Lamazares (bottom) offer two wildly variant -- and equally penetrating -- literary takes on Miami
Neither tan nor rested, Brian Antoni is nonetheless ready to translate the American Riviera to the page
Jonathan Postal
Neither tan nor rested, Brian Antoni is nonetheless ready to translate the American Riviera to the page

"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.

The short answer? "It wasn't easy." Kaplan is quick to credit the fair's co-founders, independent-bookstore owners such as Raquel Roque of Downtown Book Center, as well as Eduardo Padrón of host Miami-Dade College. But most important was his belief that a literary core was already coalescing in Miami. It just needed to be nurtured.

"The first few years I would try to get an author to come down to the book fair -- or even for a reading here at the store -- I would call up a publishing house and their publicist would say, 'Well, we have this new nonprescription-drug book out. We'll try and get the writer down.'" He shakes his head and laughs ruefully: "Their image of Miami was still of the geriatric set."

From behind the Books & Books cash register, however, Kaplan saw a different Miami. "Yes, Jane Fonda's workout book did well, but we sold huge amounts of [Russell Banks's 1985 novel] Continental Drift and J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. And those were the kind of books being read anywhere. There was a sophisticated audience here."

As the decade progressed and the book fair expanded in size, so did Miami's literary community. Both Florida International University and the University of Miami established MFA programs that have earned widespread respect and drawn marquee names as instructors. As their graduates published and made their own marks, they attracted authors to the city at large. Some writers found themselves lured to the area, whether they chose to mine it for material (like the since departed Alexander Stuart and the recently arrived Edwidge Danticat) or just enjoyed the weather, like Anne Rice and Thomas Harris.

Two decades on from Books & Books' opening and the book fair's launch, Miami has even spawned its own internationally known literary brands -- the narrative of exile, and the South Florida crime novel, as this region has handily superseded Los Angeles as the preeminent sunny place for shady people.

Yet peruse a broad survey of Miami's modern fiction and an odd truth emerges. These two categories aren't simply what Miami has become famous for; with a few exceptions, they're all Miami's literary scene has produced. If, as Joan Didion once wrote, "we tell ourselves stories in order to survive," what does this say about Miamians? Are crime and exile the sum total of our collective cultural experience?

Kaplan seems disconcerted by the notion. Leaning back in his chair, he begins drumming his fingers on the table and thinking aloud, running through a list of local notables. Certainly you're not discounting the inventiveness of John Dufresne? No, wait, he writes about Louisiana. How about Russell Banks? No, he's a New Englander who dropped by for a visit -- and Continental Drift was written eighteen years ago.

Eventually Kaplan runs out of steam. "It's natural there would be fiction about immigration and exile," he offers tentatively. "It's natural there would be mysteries because of all the clichéd reasons -- reality is stranger than fiction here. But in terms of Miami as place, where are the other experiences? Where are the social novels about Miami -- like Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities or even better, A Man in Full? You're right, they aren't here. So the question is: Where is the Great Miami Novel?"

Be careful when you repeat that question to Les Standiford, director of FIU's creative-writing program and author of the John Deal mystery series. "In a hundred years we'll be writing books about drawing-room manners," he snaps dismissively, "but right now this is a wide-open, wild and woolly town. Anybody who's writing about this place and who we are would rightfully be talking about crime and punishment.... Imagine trying to put out New Times every week in Kansas City -- what the hell would you be writing about?"

So the crime novel is the Great Miami Novel?

"The whole idea that genre fiction is not as good as literary fiction --" Standiford trails off with a perturbed sigh. "Look, determining whether a book is good by the so-called genre in which it's written is usually self-serving. It's put forward by people who wouldn't know a plot if it bit them in the butt."

Memo to Standiford's students: Beware emulating Raymond Carver or any other plumbers of the long dark nights of the soul.

"You often get that defense: 'Nothing happens in my book; that's what literary novels are supposed to be.' Well, I would suggest you read The Great Gatsby or Moby Dick. Every truly great piece of literature is not only wonderfully written, but also a terrific story."

As far as Standiford is concerned, the Great Miami Novel is already here, complete with all the trenchant social commentary Tom Wolfe would admire: It's Street 8, the late Douglas Fairbairn's 1977 look at an ascendant el exilio colliding with old-school Miami. Due for reissue next year (with a new introduction from Standiford), Street 8 embroils an Anglo used-car dealer in an anti-Castro assassination plot, limning Fairbairn's vision of a Miami future in which homegrown terrorists and a Tammany Hall-style electoral machine remake the political landscape.

"What we're coming to here is a foreign capital on our shores," Fairbairn told the Miami Herald shortly after his novel's publication. "A New Havana, the capital of free Cuba. The possibility of a Cuban coup in Miami is part of the book. Now, I know that's wild, but look, who can say that we're not headed that way?"

Who indeed. A Newsweek critic, writing at the time, applauded Street 8's masterfully taut prose but found its tales of street violence and Cuban-exile demagogy more Hollywood than "credible." Twenty-six years later, with political pandering to the pain and loss of exiles an established tradition, it's getting mighty hard to tell the film scripts from the daily headlines.

"He was ahead of his time," Standiford says of Fairbairn, who was a long-time resident of Coconut Grove. Outside of Miami, "people had no idea what he was talking about; they still don't. Even up to the Bush election [of 2000] they weren't clued in to what was going on down here."

Still, if Street 8 is our political grail, much of its social timbre exists only in memory now -- South Beach as a decaying Jewish shtetl; Coconut Grove as the sad repository for the Summer of Love's morning after, a mass of dead flowers and hippie detritus.

Of course, by Standiford's way of thinking, there are any number of worthy successors to Street 8 already in print, and if you're willing to poke around Delray Beach's Murder on the Beach bookshop, you'll find literally hundreds of candidates on display.


This past winter, after five years in Sunny Isles Beach, Joanne Sinchuk relocated her mystery-only bookshop northward in order to "follow my customers." Some physical traces of Murder on the Beach's old locale have also come along, in the form of two eight-foot-high slabs of sheetrock emblazoned with disturbing blood-red palm prints. Mystery writers, local and national, have flocked to Sinchuk's store to read from their works, but none leave without first dipping a hand in red paint for a unique autograph.

Some leave behind a little more: Carl Hiaasen developed an eerie allergic reaction to the paint; the flesh on his hand began peeling off. Other authors seem to have had a cheerier experience. Beware the full moon over Sunny Isles! adorns Edna Buchanan's hand, while John Sanford's adjoining print warns, Beware of Edna Buchanan!

"There are two people in South Florida who don't need a last name," Sinchuk quips as she leads the way to her local-authors section: "Fidel and Edna." Buchanan's work remains a strong seller, both her vivid accounts of her years as a Pulitzer Prize-winning Herald crime reporter and her crime fiction, much of which pales in goriness to her true-life tales of garroted airline stewardesses, weightlifters beaten to death with their own barbells, and children-chomping crocodiles. But there are many more Florida authors here, with every imaginable twist on the mystery milieu. And, Sinchuk notes, the classic Philip Marlowe archetype now has Preston Allen's African-American heroine and Carolina Garcia-Aguilera's pistol-packing, high-heeled cubanita for company.

One of Sinchuk's personal faves is Vicki Hendricks, whose 1995 debut Miami Purity was written as her FIU student thesis. Far from the standard whodunit, Miami Purity managed to reinvigorate traditional noir with a jolt of unabashed erotica, and not least, a female perspective. Set amid the streetwalkers and by-the-hour motels of North Miami, the book was praised by the St. Petersburg Times as "a powerful psychological probe into the other side of the Redneck Literature genre made popular by male authors Charles Bukowski and Harry Crews [in] that it's written in the girlfriend's voice."

How do you top that? Sinchuk pulls off the shelf a copy of Hendricks's 1999 followup, Iguana Love. The title is not a metaphor, she deadpans. So is Hendricks, now living in Hollywood, a contender for the Great Miami Novelist?

For that honor, Sinchuk turns to Charles Willeford, whose 1984 Miami Blues is the acknowledged ground zero for South Florida's current thriller scene. Collectors and critics alike agree on that -- a first edition in mint condition can fetch $500.

Willeford, who died in 1988, wasn't the first crime novelist to use Miami as his setting -- John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series struck commercial gold in the Sixties, and in their Orange Pulp anthology, professors Maurice J. O'Sullivan and Steve Glassman salute the forgotten Thirties hard-boiled paperbacks of Brett Halliday and Jonathan Latimer. Willeford, though, not only dove into the city's over-the-top surrealness, ethnic friction and all, but made that very wackiness as much a lead character as any of his hapless police officers and ex-cons.

If Miami Vice was the cartoon take on the emergent Miami of the Eighties, Miami Blues was its deeper, infinitely more twisted cousin, whose wicked charms were appreciated by everyone from New Yorker essayists to director Quentin Tarantino, who gave a shout-out to Willeford in his film Pulp Fiction. "We take his sort of bizarre humor for granted, but nobody else was writing like that then," says Mitchell Kaplan. "Now there's a whole school of comic absurdity," one that has propelled Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard, both devout Willeford fans, onto the best-seller list.

Standing in the middle of Murder on the Beach's sprawl of mysteries -- more than 8000 titles -- the genre's popularity is self-evident. But why? Why are so many of Sinchuk's South Florida customers reading mysteries and nothing but? "Many people, myself included, didn't start reading mysteries until they were in their thirties," Sinchuk explains. "That's when you develop your strongest sense of right and wrong. In mystery novels, unlike in real life, you get closure. All the loose ends are wrapped up. That's a satisfying feeling, especially if you live down here."


Carl Hiaasen has his own theory about Miami Lit's division into two camps: "The commercial market." Speaking by phone from his Islamorada home, he says, "The story of exile is tremendous and epic. All that is great material for a novel. For crime, there's an even simpler explanation: Everybody wants to be the next John D. MacDonald. And editors want that too."

It might be more accurate to say that everybody wants to be the next Carl Hiaasen. His annual novels regularly sell upward of 200,000 copies, with accompanying six-figure advances. Add in foreign rights, film rights, and paperback sales, and it's easy to see the attraction for aspiring novelists and increasingly beleaguered publishing companies.

Just as appealing, Hiaasen has managed to develop a national audience while consistently setting his characters' sights on Florida's most dire issues, from the disappearing Everglades to real estate speculators to malevolent politicos. Along the way he's become one of the few mystery writers to find his work discussed in the main section of the New York Times Book Review rather than relegated to the "crime" column. Hiaasen himself chalks up such ghettoization to intellectual snobbery, but given the consensus that his work transcends the crime label, might we have a fresh candidate for the Great Miami Novelist?

"Every great novel is about crime," he counters. Like Les Standiford, Hiaasen is proud to wear the scarlet C: "Crime novels have this tag of being too light, but some of the greatest novels of our time have to do with crime, whether it's a crime of the heart or a murder." Accordingly, he doesn't begrudge the growing number of literary carpetbaggers.

"Writers are poachers and vampires by nature," he says. "We're looking for material, for blood. You're not going to move someplace boring. If you want to be on the cutting edge of reality-based fiction, where else would you go but South Florida? I don't blame anybody for moving here. If you'd written a novel with an Elian Gonzalez plot, would anybody have gone for it? Not ten years ago. But now it would be considered passé or a rip-off. Or look at the bizarre excesses of the Pat Tornillo case, where he's ordering adult toys with the union dues of hard-working schoolteachers."

As for his own motivations, let's just say it's in everyone's interest that Hiaasen keep writing. "It's therapy for me," he adds matter-of-factly. "It's what keeps me out of the church tower with a high-powered rifle. This is a legal way for me to work out a lot of serious problems."

After years as a Herald reporter and columnist, he yearned to fashion his own endings. "I vent in the column, sure," he says, "but it's very limiting. You're confined to what's in your notebook -- and that's the way it ought to be. But you get so sick of watching the bad guys get their way. There's a certain hunger for justice, for the balancing of the scales. Say it's a zoning hearing where you know the citizens have no chance of being heard. In a novel you can make that turn out right. Not only are the bad guys not going to get away with it, something really, really bad is going to happen to them."

Suddenly there's a squeal in the background, followed by a crashing sound. "Come here, you little monkey!" Hiaasen growls bemusedly. His three-year-old son Quinn, apparently golfing, has just decided to play through.

While Hiaasen negotiates a cease-fire, it seems a good time to segue to Hoot, his first children's book, and as much a critical and sales success last year as any of his "adult" outings. While his intent may have been merely to serve up a G-rated book for Quinn and the rest of the children in his extended family, the result has been moving. "I've gotten so many letters from kids since Hoot came out," he says. "There's no ambiguity in them, there're no shades of gray." Hoot's tale of a pancake house encroaching on a flock of endangered owls resonated loudly. "Do we try and find another place for the pancake house and save the owls?" Hiaasen asks. "Ninety-nine percent of the kids say it's wrong to kill helpless animals. That's the pure and simple view, and it's the right view. I trust a kid's instinct over a politician's any day."

Hiaasen stops abruptly and hollers in exasperation: "Are we taking our clothes off now?"

You're talking to your son, right?


If we're talking about Cuban-American literature, then we're talking about writing in English," argues Ivonne Lamazares, citing her own highly touted debut novel, The Sugar Island, published in 2000. "It's a Miami story, the story of so many people who live here and who've gone through the same journey." There are plenty of Cuban exiles addressing their diaspora, she adds, but by writing in Spanish they're operating within the context of Latin American traditions. However much she adores the books of Madrid-based Zoe Valdes, "I wouldn't consider her a part of Miami literature, even if she moved here."

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.

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.

"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."

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."

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