When James Lauzerne explored Ernest Hemingway's Key West home this past October, he spotted a copy of The Exile, a thin literary review from the late 1920s. The journal, created and edited by Ezra Pound, featured Hemingway's writing. "I saw this thing lying there in a glass case... I couldn't pick it up and thumb through it like I wanted to. It was just a paperback little journal," Lauzerne says. "Seeing that in Hemingway's house was kind of a genesis."
Almost six months later -- on "the ides of March," Lauzerne specifies -- his writing group published volume 1, number 1 of the Middle River Review. The 46-page paperback, with its robin's egg-blue cover, showcases the beginning chapters of five unpublished crime novels: The Silicon Veil by Bob Bellinger, The Bank Robber by Johnny Dee, The Park by Craig Jordan, The Spree by Lauzerne, and The Speed of Souls by Rick Sherman.
Perhaps the eruption of vintage Miami-style crimes in Broward County has left Fort Lauderdale's aspiring scribes intoxicated. Following the recent Mafia-like hit on business mogul Gus Boulis and last year's dead-prostitutes-in-suitcases monstrosity, how could local writers not catch the crime-writing bug that has so masterfully infected Miami greats Edna Buchanan, Carl Hiaasen, James Hall, and Charles Willeford? Members of the 15-month-old Middle River Writer's Group pen fiction in several genres. However they all happened to be working on crime novels when Hemingway's ghost urged Lauzerne to compile the Review.
Each author contributed $50 toward the printing of 250 copies of the Review; Archives BookCafe at the Gateway Shopping Center in Fort Lauderdale footed the rest of the $380 bill. The group charges 94 cents per copy -- one buck with sales tax. So far the blue books are available only at Archives, site of the group's twice-monthly meetings.
Bellinger's clipped, straightforward style -- probably born from years as a technical writer and editor -- invokes the Dragnet theme song. "It is so different to write nonfiction and fiction," says Bellinger. "Nothing is the same." The author has salt-and-pepper hair and a soft voice. His novel, which he started after moving to South Florida from Long Island two years ago, tells the story of Kevin Burkett, a gruff police sergeant who loses his sight after a gang of thugs shoots him in the head. This excerpt depicts Burkett's reaction after a doctor tells him his blindness is permanent:
Brutal. With those words, I understood what "guilty' must mean to a man on trial for his life: confinement. They have passed judgment in the court of Santa Clara General Hospital that Sgt. Kevin Burkett, San Moro P.S., shall hereby, now and forever, be locked up in a world of greyness, with no lines, no faces, no borders. What did the chipper social worker call me the day after they broke the news? "Spesshiallll," she said, essesses and aitches frothing from her mouth, words that wrapped a pink ribbon around a box of dog-doo.
Special. Being a cop is special. Being a blind cop is being perpetually congratulated, encouraged, braced up and cheered up when you feel none of that. I am in the way. I fall over chairs. I get lost in hallways I've walked thousands of times before. Once I peed into a sink, not for the first time, but this time was an accident.
Dee introduces himself to New Times in a low, gravelly voice as "Johnny Dee. Dee [pause] for death." Then his eyes dance in a wry half-smile. Dee says he has spent his free time at work writing 800 longhand pages about John Donohue, a real-life New York City bank robber. The aspiring novelist, who rents out canoes at West Lake Park in Hollywood, moved from Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen to Fort Lauderdale a few years ago. His book, he says, is neither historical fiction nor nonfiction. It is, he explains in his slow, even cadence, fictionalized nonfiction. "I'm giving it a lot of muscle," he says. "I'm familiar with the characters. I've known the criminals since I was a little kid. I've drank with people who books and movies were made about."
Tall with dirty-blond hair, Dee says he had been thinking about writing The Bank Robber for a long while. "I'm a storyteller. I've been a storyteller for many years. Many years ago someone said, "Did you ever think about writing?'" he says slowly. "One day I just sat down and started writing."
This excerpt describes the childhood of Donohue, who grew up in the same time and place as Dee:
John was born in New York City, in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, in 1942. The first child of Irish immigrants, he gravitated to the criminal element in the area before he even began grammar school.
By the age of seven, he was already into lying, cheating, stealing, and getting into rock fights with other kids. About 90 percent of the kids never even made it to their 13th birthday. Mentally and emotionally ill kids. When John was 17, he began to hang out in the neighborhood saloons. He and other kids would listen and laugh as old gangsters told tales of murder for hire....
John and his friends were members of a lost tribe. People who really had no purpose in life. They were really giving a performance rather than leading a life. A few of them became feared hit men, loan sharks, corrupt union bosses, and rich heroin dealers. Their careers lasted only five to ten years. The ones who made it to 40 were sentenced to 65 or 75 years to life in prison.
Lauzerne, a thin man with gold, aviator glasses and light brown hair, says he has written about 160 pages of The Spree. Right now, however, he devotes most of his writing time to revisions that his colleagues have suggested. "The pebbles have been dropped in the pond, and the ripples haven't reached the other side yet," he says with a trademark metaphor. Lauzerne, age 53, has always played with the notion of writing fiction, he says, but not until he moved to Fort Lauderdale from Los Angeles three years ago did he act on it. Instead of finding full-time employment, he stays home to write and care for his two daughters.
The Spree is about Johnny Mano, a man fresh out of prison, who accepts a ride from a group of girls. The idea came from a tape Lauzerne heard in a friend's Los Angeles apartment. "The speaker told a story about someone out of prison waiting for someone to pick him up. He has the opportunity to get in the car with some young girls, but he doesn't because he knows that would take him right back to prison," Lauzerne says evenly. "So I got to thinking, "What if he'd gotten into the car?' I thought, "Now, that's a starting point.'"
This excerpt from the first chapter describes the thoughts of Johnny Mano, the main character, as he awaits his ride on a Los Angeles street corner:
He imagined young office girls dressed sharp, walking with a bounce to their step as they sailed in and out of skyscrapers that rose from the sidewalks.... Everyone would be looking good. He glanced down at his release clothes and thought about how out of place he'd be, about how he once thought about himself on that side of Broadway, but no longer.
The thought of the office girls and the indistinct face peering at him from the back seat of the Chevy reminded him of how long it had been since he had touched a woman, even his mother. The longing for physical contact was a dull ache that cried out to be satisfied. Maybe the old man was right. He could go sit in the coffee shop and wait for the girls to jump into his lap. Fat chance. Nobody in her right mind would want to be picked up by an ex-con with no money and no future.
In 1993, after majoring in aerospace engineering at the University of Minnesota, Craig Jordan moved to Florida to attend law school. Jordan, with cropped dark-brown hair and slate-gray eyes, has a quick, lively sense of humor that appears in his writing. The Park is about a man, Mike Holman, who begins to surface from a deep depression after the tragic loss of his wife and son, only to immerse himself in a world of evil and crime as he and a boyhood friend join together to reopen an amusement park. This excerpt depicts Holman's anxiety as he contemplates asking a woman on a date for the first time since his wife's death:
He saw her every day at the coffee shop where he bought a cinnamon bagel and small coffee before making his way into the office. She was always very friendly to him, and even held his gaze a little longer than someone who was just being polite. He didn't know her name, but he was going to find out. Mike grabbed his coat and headed to the coffee shop.
Peering around the signs in the window, Mike could see her behind the counter. She wiped the counter and the display racks with a level of care that led him to believe she must be the owner. He prepared to go in, but then caught his own reflection, and stared at himself for a moment. He knew this was a good thing. The past had to be put behind him. This didn't mean he didn't love Carol. It just meant he was going on with his life.
He pulled the door open and stepped in, the strong coffee smell immediately filling his nostrils. He walked on the wood floor toward the counter, still unsure of what to say, when she greeted him.
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The fifth contributor to the journal, Rick Sherman, who is bespectacled and articulate, worked until a few years ago for a small newspaper in Hammond, Indiana, as a self-described "Chicagoland entertainment critic, celebrity interviewer, and columnist." Sherman, who refuses to admit his age, says he's published 1800 items (that includes newspaper articles, poems, and short stories). This excerpt begins his novel:
Although PJ Williams told herself that cops don't cry, she still sobbed into her pillow. She was scheduled to fly off the next day to Quantico for two weeks and had not yet packed. Instead, she sobbed alone while her white, long, sexy satin nightgown went to waste clinging to her ebony skin.
PJ came from work feeling shitty. Her ex-partner, Stimson, just told her, "You're not shark enough to be in the Internal Affairs Department 'cause you don't go after brother officers the same way as going after perps."
He was a bastard, but he was right. By the book wasn't IAD's way to nail dirty cops. There was neither shark nor piranha in her.... She liked being a cop and a lousy day or a gig was par for the course. She liked nailing the creeps of the world. It wasn't always about getting the bad guys, but she felt real good when that happened. After all, she had stood up in third grade and announced her goal to be a lady cop and they had laughed at her. She had done it."