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.
There are frat boys, too, and gawking tourists. It's a zoo, and you wouldn't be that surprised to see a gaggle of motorbiking Shriners from the Midwest, as described by Hiaasen in "Tourist Season." The Shriners, he writes, "had arranged a little parade down Collins Avenue. Theodore Bellamy put on his mauve fez and his silver riding jacket, and drove his chrome-spangled Harley-Davidson . . . up and down Collins in snazzy circles and figure eights, honking the horns and flashing the lights."
You head up A1A, with towering hotels on your right and grand, gaudy mansions along the canal on your left. Before crossing back to the mainland, you pull over and reach for your "Road Atlas." Not the Rand McNally kind but a poetry book of that name by Florida International University professor Campbell McGrath.
And you turn, like a MapQuest search, to a selection titled "Biscayne Boulevard."
Via verse, McGrath leads you across the Broad Causeway. "Crossing the bay: pelicans and buzzards against a Japanese screen of rifted clouds, squalls and riffs in grey, white, azure."
You pass a no-big-deal Citgo station (6) and glance south toward the city as it begins its nightly glittering. "The grease monkeys at the gas station on the causeway," McGrath observes, "must have the most beautiful view of any workers in America."
You head down Biscayne Boulevard and, sure enough, it is as McGrath describes it: "Evenings, working girls from the topless clubs shop their wares among these strip malls of chop suey and gospel Creole, / glass bones of liquor stores, / the glorious ruin of these motels: New Deal, Mardi Gras, Vagabond, Hacienda ;/ Sinbad, Starburst, South Pacific, 7 Seas . . ."
Many of them -- the South Pacific, the Sinbad (7) -- are still in business and behind bright neon signs lie in reptilian wait for the weary wayfarer.
At the bottom of the boulevard, you enter Coconut Grove, a favorite haunt of Miami wordmongers. You find a nice outdoor cafe at a Borders Books and Music (8), and crack open your copy of "Naked Came the Manatee." As you look around at all the people, you savor the opening lines. "Saturday night, Coconut Grove," writes Dave Barry. "It was the usual scene: thousands of people, not one of whom a normal person would call normal."
The moon rises in the southern sky.