Paradise Found

Page 3 of 6

"The bag makes its way around the assembled group and reaches Raoul last. It is sagging a little now, so when Raoul brings it to his mouth he sucks deep ... deeper ... and again. There is a big 'Aaaaauuuh!' sound as he takes his last breath and holds it, keeping his lips shut in a happy grin.

"But next as I watch him, sitting there on the floor in the centre of the room, his eyes roll up, so that his brown irises are barely visible, his lips turn an ugly blue colour and a dark stain appears on his shorts where he has pissed himself.

"He remains sitting in this position for a moment, then simply collapses sideways onto the floor, drooling at the mouth, the dark stain on his shorts growing larger. Everyone laughs, but it occurs to me that this boy whom I've only just met may be about to die in front of me, and I get up and go over to him to try to sit him back up."

How about dialing 911! the reader wants to shriek. But Stuart isn't here to save souls or moralize. And in the end, instead of reaching the predictable and sanctimonious conclusion that his teenybopper cohorts comprise a lost generation, he winds up admiring their resilience, and finds a convincing optimism at the heart of their thrill-seeking.

"What draws me to them, I think, is what has always drawn people to America: a dream of beginning -- in my case, of beginning again," he writes. "I find them mostly easier to relate to than the Americans I know in their late twenties and thirties, whose optimism takes on a depressingly materialistic edge....

"Sometimes it seems as if a whole generation of adults has fallen apart and its children are trying to pick up the pieces. Mostly they do pretty well: they show more courtesy and respect than many of the adults around them; they have values of their own which they cling to."

As Dara Friedman, a long-time friend of Stuart who appears in the book, notes: "Here he is, he's forty years old hanging out with fifteen-year-old runaways and doing drugs and listening to their music -- he's complicit. He describes it and he's thoroughly accepting of it. It's an extended piece of journalism, but it's not American journalism. He's not necessarily drawing moral conclusions."

Stuart is happily at home with the ambivalence, contradiction, and bizarre paradoxes of life in Florida -- astonishing natural beauty subsisting in the midst of grotesque swaths of "development"; a mermaid at Weeki Wachee spring who dismantles her own mystique by explaining how not to "butt-kick" when you wear a mermaid costume; the blurry gender lines of the club scene; the absence, in prosperously nonindustrial Dade County, of any visible economic means of support beyond real estate, the drug trade, banking, and tourism; the odd, recurrent thesis that Miami is a "spiritual" place capable of inspiring inner peace in the midst of carnality, commerce, and hedonism. Stuart lets his true-life characters draw the conclusions, and if they sometimes talk too much, one forgives them for it.

The pseudonymous John Hood, a Yale-educated nightclub bouncer and con man, pops up in his fedora throughout the book: "Miami's history is purely that of the carpetbagger or the criminal," he asserts. "Selling swampland. It's the grifter. I think it's the first city to be founded upon the merits and the true definition of grifting. And it was the first city where the class of the grifter was less important than his talent. A good grifter, be he blue-blood or barbaric, can make it.

" I think making money down here and having great ideas are sure to succeed. But they rank in a dubious realm compared to surviving with your spine intact. Down here I feel it's real easy to trance yourself out and wake up in the morning and dump yourself in the cleansing waters of South Beach. I think it's the last best place for decadence. You could swallow a jellyfish, step on a bottle, have unsafe sex and, after an eight-ball evening, still feel like, 'Well, I'm OK! I've got a tan!'"

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Sean Rowe