Everyone knows that South Florida has a seedy underbelly. The American fascination with crime-sex-and-violence-laden stories about South Florida has been going strong for quite some time, particularly on the silver screen.
Miami Vice, paved the way for today’s Magic City, CSI: Miami, The Glades, and Burn Notice. You don’t have to dig deep into contemporary pop cultural output to see that people are intrigued by South Florida’s lure. We’re a rap star mecca, and there’s a party-banging mention of the 305 in a lot of catchy club tracks.
An article penned by Adam Gopnik in the latest issue of the New Yorker does a decent job of following the late 20th century journey of the Florida crime novel. Unfortunately, the piece, entitled, “In the Back Cabana: The Rise and Rise of Florida Crime Fiction,” is behind a paywall, but it’s worth exploring to better understand the lineage we here in South Florida share with written crime narratives as well as various slinky women with muscle-bound henchman at their whim and/or tails.
Gopnik contends that South Florida may have displaced Los Angeles’ prominence in the national fascination with particular respect to crime fiction. He harkens back to giants of the noir novel like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and talks of the post-war tradition of hard-nosed detectives searching the street corners between darkly lit flophouses and the moneyed mansions of Santa Monica. His basic premise is fascinating. That Florida has a different set of rules, and that those rules appeal more to the modern day American:
“In the Florida-glare novel of the past thirty years, nothing connects, but everything coincides. Every little group turns out to overlap with another. Since sexual appetite is easily fulfilled and essentially without limits (women now publish their own lurid photographs), sex and shame are no longer motives. This is a society without basic repressions. There are no dirty secrets… In L.A. noir, the essential fear is of corruption – the system is fake. In Florida glare, corruption is taken for granted. The thing to fear is chance; the lottery ticket held by the wrong guys.”
South Florida is indeed well familiar with corruption, and many who are used to life here see the many coincidences inherent to life merely as humorous.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of moments where Gopnik’s brilliance just doesn’t get it. Like so many others who have come and gone, it takes a little more to dig deeper into Florida’s quirks, particularly those quirks which translate upon the national scene, whether in fiction or not.
Frustratingly, the term “Florida-glare”, seemingly coined by Gopnik to refer to Florida crime fiction, appears to mean nothing and is never explained. He talks of weather as a character but forgets landscape, where mangroves and gators are possibilities for twists and deadly turns in a narrative. He omits the patterned milieu of South Florida’s racial makeup altogether. He even, when praising Tom Wolfe’s universally panned Back to Blood, says cringingly that it’s necessary to see Miami as a cartoon. It’s as if he’s on literary Spring Break and he’s binge drinking John MacDonald to impress another tourist.
In true New Yorker fashion, when talking about Carl Hiaasen’s newest release, Bad Monkey, he quickly notes that “depending on how late the hour or how delayed the flight, one can relish as the vision in pristine form or as the formula reliably executed.” Despite trying to edify the genre of Florida crime fiction, at the same time he must relegate it to some version of non-importance, because Gopnik wouldn’t want people to think he reads this sort of thing in any other context then when half asleep or between important places.
Gopnik’s ultimate conclusion comes off as forced, ineffective, and even somewhat dumb. He brings this idea of pervasive coincidence around to the Tsarnaev brothers, which feels a lot like a politician yelling “September 11th!” on the campaign trail:
“To imagine contemporary American horrors, you need an imagination that can take in the trivial and the terrible in one glace, finding the dark impulse that turns Borats into bombers. From night cities of sinister conspiracies to a sunlit country of grotesque coincidences. It sounds like home.”
Putting aside the youth pandering and racist reference to the Tsarnaev’s as “Borats,” Gopnik misses making a very real point about the South Florida landscape with respect to terrorism. Remember, three of the four pilots in the September 11th attacks actually lived and trained in flight school here. It’s something we collectively do not talk about enough, as if embarrassed.
But if we are to accept our tropical paradise as a breeding ground for the strange and sometimes wicked, we must reckon with the personal timelines of Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, and Ziad Jarrah and their stay in South Florida. In fact, mentioning those names would have strengthened Gopnik’s case considerably.
Having only been here for a little over 100 years, Miami, South Florida and by extension a sort of ethereal and unnamable Florida landscape, is relatively new in the American narrative. But it is powerful and it has a persuasion that fascinates young and old, and through sex, crime and the search for glory, a perverted version of the American dream emerges amongst the saw grass and citrus groves. Yes it sounds like home.
Regardless of Gopnik’s reading and its various subtle flaws, and South Florida’s occasional blemishes, we should be proud that the layered lifestyle we live down here captivates America, and cultivates to such rich storytelling.