Miami, the ultimate 21st-century city, a portable prison of twisted culture in the vanguard of the bizarre. The demon seed offspring of the American family, an incorrigible distant relation who lowers the tone and drives everyone nuts, dangerous but undeniably interesting. A city careening along with the invincible logic of lunacy, too much and not enough, leading the way to the next American epoch. As with any family, love and laughs are in short supply, but we've got might, right, and cable TV behind us, and we're not taking any prisoners along on the national joy ride.

Out in the beyond, a series of degenerate but useful evenings, all quick cuts and Salvador Dali dream sequences. Down to the district of desire, a bum screaming obliviously ("I'm down and out on South Beach -- that's worse than Beverly Hills!") amid the endless parade of succulent beauties. A lawless landscape ruled by teen tycoons, eerily mirroring Prohibition-era Chicago: the 28-year-old Al Capone raking in a hundred million a year, kicking the mayor down the courthouse steps in a cocaine-fueled frenzy; the alcoholic Eliot Ness, 24 and spoiling for a fight. A cornucopia of models and designer drugs replacing the era of bootleg liquor and flappers, and still it's live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking and media-exploitable corpse behind. We had just gotten used to being besieged by the coke-demented, and now everybody's on heroin, making a bid for Kurt Cobain immortality without the rudimentary fame credentials.

In the meantime, it's just say yes to alcohol, the club crawls with aging voyeurs blurring together. The men's room of one place or another, a little vixen walking in for a tour of the urinal action, falling into an existential conversation about the just-say-maybe joys of sexlessness and a young Beach kingpin: "He's not evil, he just wants to make a lot of money fast." Back to the crush of nasty flesh, one of our party rhapsodizing about the old "Industry" at the Cameo, a couple opting to have sex in a pulsating speaker. More vintage drugs and decadence conversation from there, the days of inhaling PCP, acid, and pertinent household products, a Sixties veteran -- now terminally suburban -- suddenly recalling a boys' night out in prep school, a five-day psychotic episode induced by massive consumption of an asthma medication. One kid drowning in a river, another running into the woods and never seen again, our friend kicked out of school and sent to a loony bin, eventually deemed unsuitable for the draft. All of us, in a chorus of lament and loss, sighing at once: "God, we used to have so much fun in those days."

On to an assortment of seemly entertainments, resolving to escape low-rent nostalgia and the craving for dirt. The recreational insanity of ballroom dancing at the Fontainebleau Hilton, Mitzi Gaynor-style glitz and epicene dance instructors, a niche of improbable beauty in this rich, variegated, and incredibly weird country. A dinner party Saturday night with Lowery Stokes Sims of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in town to lecture on the work of sculptor Melvin Edwards at Florida International University, the off-duty Sims talking about the recent Rolling Stones concert in New York: "It was a long show with unbelievable special effects, but at our age an hour of almost anything is enough." A movie screening in Aventura for the excellent Quiz Show, an evocative portrait of rigged television programs in the Fifties, bush-league corruption, and the sense of entitlement that permeates WASP life. The self-glorifying and ultimately debilitating deceptions of fallen nobleman Charles Van Doren holding true some 40 years later for the surreal and utterly shameless MTV Awards telecast. Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley kissing with the chaste ardor of prom queens, David Letterman and Madonna making saps out of everyone who actually believed their much-publicized squabble A Madonna, of all people, telling the real story all along.

Local celebrity chatter, the sort-of-real story, also mounting inexorably. Johnny Depp and Kate Moss making a glamour cameo on the Beach, still together after meeting during the editing of Depp's antidrug video, a penance for youthful high jinks. The uptown division of Hollywood Amorals chieftain Jack Valenti, Judson Green of Disney, Gary Faulkner of Universal -- flying in for a September 19 campaign fundraiser for Lawton Chiles at the Biltmore Hotel, movieland fever being all the rage.

Wrapping up the dead-zone run with a vastly entertaining reception for Bret Easton Ellis, hosted by Brian Antoni of the upcoming novel Paradise Overdose and Debbie Ohanian of Meet Me in Miami, Ellis on a major publicity tour, reading from The Informers at Books & Books and forever serving as a traveling litmus test of hip. In certain New York circles, Ellis remaining the perennially misunderstood sweetheart, the young revolutionary known for glittering Christmas parties and an amusing little satire of rampant consumerism, American Psycho. From other perspectives, Ellis rivaling the sinister machinations of Aleister Crowley: cruel and misogynistic, vapid as the aimless but commercially rewarding lives he eviscerates, a splatter artist-pornographer who destroyed literature in one disgusting swoop. Good or evil, the bad boy of publishing slick as all get out in person, well-mannered, nattily dressed, and socially adept. All the right moves and the proper compliments, fending off idiotic criticism of The Informers A not gory enough -- and unfailingly self-deprecating: "Whining is really an underrated art form; I've made a whole career out of it."

This being Miami, his relative stature in the national pantheon sort of beside the point, although way too many fame-smitten guests -- of both sexes -- kept making pitched lust assaults. The party unraveling in a splendid manner, within and without Ellis: a crashing queen from Holland pawing people and making secretive calls to the homeland; the producer of Caligula mingling with a famed songwriter; Damian Dee-Vine doing a salute to Evita with an Esther Williams touch, jumping in the pool for a grand finale. Everyone clustering around and gaping at the shimmering water, eerily like the cafe society in La Dolce Vita, momentarily captivated by the spectacle of a miraculous beast. The moment passes, the evening pivots -- someone noting that the whole scene really smacked of The Damned, save for the lack of sexually arresting Nazi gear -- Ellis long gone as the die-hards hang on, clutching at possibility. And so we all travel, party to party, heedless and feverish, lost in the great engine of society, chasing the mirages of the night.

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Tom Austin