Paradise Found

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"Micky [Wolfson] seemed to me like such an unexpected aspect of Florida, a Henry James kind of figure," Stuart says. "He seemed to be the opposite of the obvious gas station-shopping mall culture of America. A lot of Europeans have a very simplistic view of America. They think that America is just Kojak and Miami Vice and things they see in the movies. Micky, to a degree, represents the sort of extraordinary refinement that's here also. He's a very intelligent man. He has the kind of classical education that very few of us are getting any more. He has this enormous energy and this sort of little-boy-in-a-toy-shop quality, a mischievous side. And he's chosen to do some very interesting things with his money, including the choice to live here."

Perhaps the most poignant image Stuart confers upon the reader is the one he discovers at dawn in Key West during his final road trip. Next to a boat ramp on a tiny patch of sand, a young architecture student is building an astonishing sand castle, "a Gaudi-like palace of crenelated towers and terraces, intricate bridges and domes, which seem to defy gravity." To Stuart, working to rebuild his own life far from home, it seems "the clearest image of Florida you could have -- of transience and rebirth. The Overseas Railroad. BOOM! Build again. Hurricane Andrew. BOOM! Build again."

These days, Stuart seems to be hitting the big time once more. A few weeks ago, wooed by Hollywood hotshots, he flew to Los Angeles. While sitting in a producer's office with Kiefer Sutherland cinching a deal to write a screenplay adaption of a book called Among the Thugs, the phone rang. On the other end of the line was actor and would-be director Tim Roth, who asked Stuart to write a script of his own book The War Zone. Stuart has lately completed the latter project and begun the former. In his spare time, he's writing a story for the London Times Sunday magazine, researching a novel set in post-World War I England, and preparing to teach a film course this fall at the University of Miami. The other night he turned on his shortwave radio and heard the BBC do a rave review of Life on Mars, introduced by the soundtrack to Miami Vice.

"He's got a terrific voice and a great ear for dialogue, and really some insightful observations," says Matthew Levy, vice president of Stillwater Productions, a Los Angeles film company. "I'm about a hundred pages into Life on Mars. It's basically a very well-written account of a stranger in a strange land, which is the same sort of thing we're trying to do with Among the Thugs. It seems like a universal theme, one man's observation of a foreign land. I can't imagine why the book hasn't been published in America."

"It's a great examination by an outsider of a peculiar and very sexy city," says Paul Chung, Stuart's representative at the Lantz-Harris Literary Agency in New York. "Everybody's in love with his writing, but I think some American publishers aren't sure about an outsider commenting on their home turf. They look at him as a Brit, and that's what seems to be setting him apart from these other books that have been written about Miami and Florida. It's unfortunate.

"Several of the major trade houses here in New York are looking at the book now, and I'm confident I'll be able to sell it. It's a compelling read and a very thorough, intricate piece of journalism. I think it's an important book. Miami is a phenomenon -- socially, politically, architecturally, and in many other ways -- and I think Alexander has captured that."

Stuart says he'll probably keep writing about Florida for foreign publications. But a sore spot has appeared, a paradox that besets all those lingering too long under the palms. "One of the problems I have now, actually, is I know Florida and America well enough that I don't necessarily notice immediately the things they want me to pick up on and write about," he says. "It's harder for me now. Friends come from Europe and comment on things, and I realize they don't even seem strange to me any more. Have I gone native? I think there's an element of that.

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Sean Rowe