Sleaze! Sex! Suspense!

South Florida writers live the life

You've never smelled a funeral like this one. It's pushing 100 degrees in the ravaged back stacks of All Books & Records in the Sears Town shopping plaza in Fort Lauderdale. All but one of the store's seven huge, old air conditioners has gone out -- one of the reasons the store's owner, Rod Cronk, a short, soft-mannered man with a bristly wreath of a beard on his jaw and a safari hat atop his crown, is calling it quits after 29 years in business. Electric fans hustle stale air amid the shelves as workers stack and pack boxes of used mysteries, plays, magazines, cookbooks, histories, essays, and romances.

The breeze pushes the midsummer heat to carry relief to sweaty skin and... and that smell: the musky attic perfume of paperbacks with cracked spines and dog-eared covers and notes in the margins of pages that have with decades turned an earwaxy shade of brown. The aged books, thousands of them, still kick up their scent though workers entomb them and patrons carry them out by the discounted armload while saying, "I just feel like I'm taking advantage of you."

Maybe after All Books' carcass has been picked bare by those who love it most, you'll be able to find what you're looking for in the clean, well-lighted place that is Barnes & Noble or on the display table of Borders, a store so thoroughly air-conditioned that the front doors collect condensation and refuse to close entirely because humid Florida nights audibly suck out the cold. You may not miss All Books, and you may not care when the next used or independent book shop goes the way of the neighborhood hardware store or the five-and-dime. If that's the case, you're probably also the sort who would, given the option, bed only virgins. Hey, it's a free country.

Rod Cronk, owner of All Books & Records in Fort Lauderdale, is closing shop after nearly three decades.
Colby Katz
Rod Cronk, owner of All Books & Records in Fort Lauderdale, is closing shop after nearly three decades.
S.V. Date wouldn't mind being Carl Hiaasen. Then again, who would?
S.V. Date wouldn't mind being Carl Hiaasen. Then again, who would?

"You want to talk about a tragedy?" laments Greg Slugocki, a tall man clothed in tank top and jeans, on hand to help pack up all of All Books' books. "What's South Florida reading? Well, I'll tell you what: They aren't.

"There's no instant gratification in reading a book," he adds. "It's all about the long-term satisfaction. And this is an instant gratification place."

It's a sad mantle for a region that, somewhat paradoxically, has been steeped in literary figures since Ernest Hemingway punched out A Farewell to Arms in Key West in 1928. Tennessee Williams also wrote in Key West and used money from A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie to buy a home there. A co-founder of the Paris Review, Peter Mattheissen, set one of his most acclaimed novels, Killing Mister Watson, in the primitive Everglades.

Today, more than anything, Florida generates beach books in the tradition of pulp bard John D. MacDonald, who wrote his antihero Travis McGee, star of 21 novels, onto a Fort Lauderdale houseboat. In the past 20 years, the Florida successes have multiplied: Carl Hiaasen, Randy Wayne White, Edna Buchanan, Tim Dorsey, James W. Hall, Les Standiford, Jonathon King. The reigning dark knight of crime comedy, Elmore Leonard, has roots in Palm Beach. Massive best-selling crime novelist Michael Connolly started on his path to superstardom when, as a boy, he saw a murderer stash a gun in a Fort Lauderdale hedge; he went on to cover crime for the Sun-Sentinel.

Why all the scribes? The experts point to Miami Vice and its aftershocks, the weather, the immigrants, the scumbags, the money, the poverty. But no need to elaborate. Seriously, man, Florida just be crazy.

In honor of readers everywhere, All Books, and the four remaining months of summer, we'd like to drag a few of the lesser-known authors off the shelves now. The keepers of South Florida's written tradition, it turns out, are living lives that resound like the characters of their novels. As one of them, James O. Born, cheerily told a crowd at a book signing last month: "I don't know how many of you read Walking Money" -- his first novel -- "but if it changed your life, you've got problems."

S.V. DATE

Tallahassee bureau chief, Palm Beach Post

Fiction muse:South Florida madcap moralist Carl Hiaasen.

Trademark:Satires that resemble romans á clef, strong on description of the darker realities of politics and policy, tinged with bitter optimism.

Excerpt:"Florida is the state whose House speaker recently gave a former Hooters waitress one of the top jobs in his office -- notwithstanding her lack of requisite qualifications, like college degree or experience. The voters in his district were so indignant about this that they promoted him to Congress." -- from Quiet Passion

The skinny: Even for a state full of transplants, Shirish Date has taken a circuitous route. His parents brought him from Pune, India, to Massachusetts when he was 3 years old. They moved to New York state and California; Date attended Stanford University and had hopes of becoming a doctor until he made the tactical career error of hanging around the college paper too long, and it so consumed his interest that he eventually edited the thing. He graduated in 1985 and wrote for a daily paper in upstate New York before landing at the Orlando Sentinel. There, he spent four years covering the space program before taking an 11,000-mile, yearlong sojourn across the Atlantic on a 31-foot cutter with his now-wife, Mary Beth. He banged out his first novel, Final Orbit, on a secondhand laptop that he kept in a plastic bag while at sea. (In that book, crooks conspire to destroy the shuttle Columbia, which breaks apart over the Gulf of Mexico during its descent to Cape Canaveral. Of course, that very shuttle actually did crumble six years after Final Orbit's publication, on its reentry over the American Southwest. Date remembers that moment as surreal.)

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