SOMETIME IN THE LATE '40s, influential critics
began to take issue with American fiction that included strong, sometimes violent action. This, the critics argued, was an inferior way to write books; the "distingished American writer," they said, would discard novels of "mere violence" for the novel of ideas in the European tradition.
The case was somewhat overstated--this, after all, was the era that gave American letters both Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead and, more significantly, the novels of Raymond Chandler, all of which, while certainly violent enough in both description and theme, were based on unflinching, self-sacrificing, at times almost prudish moral principles. The effect of the argument, nevertheless, was to create the appearance of a division in American writing. Later novelists tended to write "academic" novels in which ideas abounded but nobody ever did much of anything, or mindless thrillers. In more recent days there have been serious attempts to repair this split with novels of action that are, at the same time, concerned with deeper issues: Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers for instance, and now, Robert Merkin's The South Florida Book of the Dead.
The South Florida Book of the Dead has everything you ever wanted in a caper novel: wild chases, fist fights, gunplay, beautiful but deadly women, betrayed lovers, bodies attached to cement blocks and dumped into swimming pools. The story involves a group of amiable social dropouts, three of whom live in communal style in that new Eden of the counterculture, Key West, Florida. They are getting by--doing quite well, actually--on the proceeds from a little light-hearted marijuana smuggling. Their ventures are bankrolled by a vice president of a Miami bank, whose customers are delighted with his investment record; drugs are very good business.
The banker, Lee, is in love with his secretary, Laura, "the ultimate girl Friday and mistress," who "smelled of the slightest hint of expensive perfume that probably was squeezed from Himalayan wildflowers or essence of Baptist virgin" and who looks at men "thinking What will drip out if I squeeze this fellow like a wringer mop and how can I do it?" Lee is also neurotic, and needs, when the money is out of the bank, the steadying hand of bearlike Michael.
Michael is closer to the real core of the group, the three who live in the communal house in Key West: Becker, a Vietnam veteran who delights in things mechanical and who, at the firing up of a joint, launches into impromptu lectures on "Alternate Extraterrestrial Chemistries or Incest Taboos Around the World or Digital Techniques in Contemporary HO Model Railroading or The Balkans in Transition"; Annie, the runaway daughter of an Army officer; and Richard, also a veteran, also in love with Laura, who has drawn Becker to Key West. There Becker is introduced to R.J., a hard core smuggler who lives "like some Mogul emperor surrounded by palace intrigues whose wives and ministers disappear and are replaced with new ones from day to day" and who has a laugh "that didn't have the slightest connection with humor or grins or what you might call a good time."
The story begins when Becker, grown tired of nickel- and-dime marijuana smuggling, persuades Richard and Lee to go for a big score in Colombia cocaine, insisting that neither Laura nor R.J. be informed. All goes well until it is time for Becker and Michael to rendezvous with the mother ship; then the deal goes sour. The cops have been informed. A chase ensues. Michael is wounded. Richard is ambushed and shot. Lee is killed. Eventually the survivors pull the caper off, but not before one is forced into Mexican exile and others are brutally executed.
The action plot is clean and strong, though not without problems. Merkin has adopted a dual point of view, having both Becker and Richard narrate from the first person, a step that was unnecessary and which, worse, was taken without setting up the kind of predictable pattern that would make the shifts smooth. He has also left out a few important scenes, notably those in which Becker negotiates for the cocaine; this would have added a good deal of tension. Were this a simple thriller, these flaws would be major. But The South Florida Book of the Dead is no simple thriller.
In essence, this modern caper is an ancient morality play in which a band of innocents are betrayed by the forces of evil and, in their fight to destroy that evil, lose their innocence. In a traditional sense, of course, none of these characters is innocent: Lee is an embezzler, Michael a homosexual, Annie a wildly promiscuous bisexual, and both Becker and Richard capable of acts that could at best be termed heinous. They are, after all, drug dealers. And yet they do not approach the degree of evil represented by Laura, who marks two of her lovers for death and swims in the pool while Lee's body drifts below. Annie's bisexual promiscuity is a breath of fresh air compared to Laura's mercenary monogamy; Annie will do it for anybody, but Laura will only do it for money.
In fact, it is this standard of love of lucre that separates the truly innocent from the partly so, and justifies their different fates. Lee, who "loved to flash that roll at the track," ends up at the bottom of the pool, while Richard, who abandons the profits from the deal, Michael, who in a fit of despair at Lee's death goes on a telethon and gives some of it away, and Becker, who at one point burns a $100 bill, get to live.
But the great difference between innocence and evil is exemplified by an episode involving a boat called the Coriolis, which R.J. takes over with Michael's help, then proceeding to murder the six people aboard in grisly fashion, slicing one man's belly open so the body will sink faster, raping the woman repeatedly before cutting their throats.
Despite his complicity, Michael demonstrates his innocence by refusing to rape one of the men, as R.J. urges, offering "to kill the women himself if R.J. would let him do it now and fast," and explaining his role without evading the responsibility: "I was high on money and toot and R.J.'s big plans. I guess it must have occurred to me that once we got the boat he wasn't going to take those people to a French restaurant, but I swear, what happened, I wasn't ready for it and I didn't want it to happen. I was just messed up. I messed up." The others were truly innocent, Lee and Richard becoming accessories only after the fact, and Becker remaining so unknowing that, in the presence of Michael, he launches into a lecture on the Coriolis effect.
Here Merkin's symbolism gets a bit muddy, for he defines that effect as a "hypothetical force" by which "hurricanes decided which way to spin," a technical inaccuracy for which he can be forgiven since the metaphor, as he uses it, is perfect; events catch his innocents up and twist them northeast and southwest, leaving only Annie, the most innocent of them all, alone in the Eden of Key West.
It is hard to say what makes a book satisfying. To some it is enough that it have strong plot, characterization, and action. To others, however, there must be at the core some kind of moral integrity. By defining these uninnocents as innocents, and thus forcing us to redefine our own values, Merkin affirms such integrity, making The South Florida Book of the Dead satisfying in every way.