Miami: A Literary Loop

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 22, 2002

Gliding into the international airport of the magnificent city of Miami, you can't help but picture Freddy Frenger, the haiku-loving psychopath in Charles Willeford's noir novel "Miami Blues," also arriving and beginning his parade of terror by snapping the finger of a Hare Krishna.

You've read so many stories -- sexy, sublime, sinister -- set in Miami, it's hard to go anywhere in this way-cool, way-complicated city without recalling certain scenes. On this particular jaunt, you draw from a range of works by some familiar -- and some not so familiar -- writers.

You begin your literary loop through Miami at Books & Books ( No. 2 on map, Page E5), a legendary independent shop in Coral Gables not far from the airport. When it comes to understanding local-lit lore, owner Mitchell Kaplan is the swami of Miami.

You ask him about Willeford. "Charlie preceded everybody," Kaplan says. " 'Miami Blues' was misunderstood. Some people took it seriously. They didn't see the black humor.

"Miami has, over the last number of years, developed into a pretty diverse, vibrant literary community."

To sample what Kaplan's talking about, you buy a copy of "Naked Came the Manatee," a collaborative novel written by 13 Miami writers, including Elmore Leonard, James W. Hall and Tananarive Due.

From Kaplan's store, drive north to SW Eighth Street, also known as Calle Ocho, and head east toward the city. Around 37th Avenue or so, you come into Little Havana, a Cuban (and increasingly Nicaraguan) haven of exotic foods and marvelous music.

Versailles (3), a Cuban restaurant at 3555 SW Eighth, is a favorite hangout. Here's the way Carolina Garcia-Aguilera describes it in her novel, "Bitter Sugar": "Versailles could exist only in Miami," she writes, calling it the nerve center of the Cuban exile community. "Politicians -- both Anglo and Latino -- from Miami and from out of town were always dropping by campaigning, greeting their constituents, hoping to win support by stopping at each table and adding to the human gridlock. The waiters and waitresses would have to maneuver around them with heavily laden trays balanced perilously above their heads. It was the accepted state of things, like the cigar smoke that drifted everywhere in defiance of antismoking ordinances."

Downtown Miami is the fulcrum of the fictional scene. On the bay, you see the Miami Herald, a seedbed for dark and delightful tales by Carl Hiaasen, Edna Buchanan, Dave Barry and others who work, or have worked, there.

Near the waterfront, you pass a passel of roller skaters at Bayfront Park. At times the carousel is lit up like a cruise ship and twirls precariously like the world. On NBA game days, you see limos lined up like a string of white pearls outside the American Airlines Arena and dressed-to-the-tens women high-heeling it up the steps. The Heat may be inside, but the cool are definitely outside.

Taking the MacArthur Causeway across Biscayne Bay, you pass the Port of Miami (4) that Vicki Hendricks writes about in "Iguana Love," an adults-only novel of lust, lizards and illegalities. "We left the Port of Miami on Friday morning. There were six divers on board the sixty-five foot dive boat . . .," she writes. "I kept convincing myself I'd imagined the drug thing and we'd be doing honest work to make our money."

At the end of the causeway, you find South Beach (5). On a Saturday afternoon, suave men in white pants and color-splashed shirts and luxuriant, leggy women in sexy dresses quaff cafe con leche at the cafes and window-shop at stores like Armani Exchange and Benetton along Collins Avenue.

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