Sleaze! Sex! Suspense!
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.
"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."
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.)
He returned from his sailing voyage to find a different editor at Putnam and his fiction career slightly adrift. So he focused on the NASCAR haven of Daytona Beach and tried to do his best Hiaasen impression in Speed Week.
The state remained the star in later novels that sent up the state's Big Tobacco settlement and Disney. The money, he says, is just good enough that he can send his two young sons, Orion and Rigel, to public school and stash money for their college. If anything, novelizing has helped his reporting contacts. "Generally," the 41-year-old says, "the people who may or may not have been models for the villains in my novels probably have not served as great sources for me anyway."
His latest novel, Black Sunshine, focuses on a pair of shrub-like political brothers, one of questionable intellectual stature, and a brittle, jagged, female Florida Secretary of State who undergoes plastic surgery to hold a smile on her face. It prompted one reviewer on Amazon.com to extol Katherine Harris' virtues and demand that Date be deported.
"Maybe in places that have relatively clean government, you can't have these type of [novels]," Date says. "This is still the Wild West. In a sense, we were settled after California, and everything goes here.
"You think you're going to change the world for the better," he says of newspaper work, "and in fact, you're just making a very small paycheck. So you write novels in which the bad guys are eaten by carnivores."
Formative experience: The transatlantic sailing trip. They braved storms, caught their suppers, learned languages, made repairs, and consorted with the international gallery that crossed their path. It also helped him write. No one can sail across an ocean in 24 hours; it's impossible. But 100 miles in a day -- that can be done. He accomplishes a book in the same increments. You write two pages a day for 150 straight days...
Critics say: One of the harsher criticisms about Black Sunshine came from an Orlando Sentinel writer who disliked only the copious nautical detail; indeed, Date's prose reads dense. Otherwise, the papers love him. A representative Tampa Tribune review said he's "in the Carl Hiaasen-level of Florida fiction."
In his day job, he's more polarizing. "He has a very aggressive, take-no-prisoners style," says Miami Herald reporter Marc Caputo, a friend and former Post colleague. "In the process of reporting politics, you need to be political. Sometimes, he hasn't been as mindful of that."
Why you don't know him: By now, you probably should; his books are enjoyable and germane enough. He still hasn't had his Striptease moment, in which Demi Moore's breasts make him a household name. Bob Graham did him no favors by being the first Democrat to pull out of the 2004 primary race -- five months before Date could even get the biography to bookstores. He enjoys dubious local fame for the 2002 episode in which then-House Speaker Tom Feeney barred him from the House floor after some unflattering stories.
Working on: Another nonfiction book, this one about Jeb Bush. He's also cranking on another novel, tentatively titled Foul Ball, in which the owner of a South Florida pro baseball team has, after years of trying, finagled a spiffy, retractable-roof stadium out of the state Legislature. The only catch is that a clause in the deal requires that the team not make the playoffs for five years. When the baseballers start winning, the owner starts executing his roster. "Any similarities to any actual owners in South Florida," Date says, "naturally are coincidental."
Educator, periodic vagabond
Published: Surface Tension (2002), Cross Current (2004), Bitter End (due in September).
Fiction muse: Lionized drunkard Ernest Hemingway.
Trademark: Nautical action and themes of old Florida.
Excerpt: "[T]he city commissioners decided, in all their wisdom, that no tourists were better than the drunken, debauching variety. They used the cops to drive away the spring-breakers, and with their business gone, slowly the small mom-and-pop motels closed, nailing plywood over the windows and putting up For Sale signs in the dry, unkempt grass. Corporate America went on a buying spree then... The Fort Lauderdale Strip would soon have as much character as any middle-America shopping mall." -- from Surface Tension
The skinny: Kling has light hair, sapphires where her eyes should be, and a curious, mirthful smile that makes her right eye squint as though she were imitating a pirate; or perhaps that appears to be the effect because boats and wanderlust have been her life. She was the middle child of three and grew up in Southern California with a yearning to live in Gertrude Stein's apartment in Paris and canoodle with Pablo Picasso and F. Scott Fitzgerald. As a teen, she lived in Paris for a spell, hitchhiked around Europe, then returned to California. She dropped out of college at age 19 to traverse the Baja Peninsula on a ten-speed, and again, near her 21st birthday, to move to Maui and sail.
It was in Hawaii that she met her eventual husband, James, who picked up the self-described "hippie chick" as crew, never expecting she would last through trips to French Polynesia and New Zealand. They returned to California and, in 1982, struck out for the Caribbean to run a charter service. When she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, Tim, in 1984, they followed her love of John D. MacDonald's Fort Lauderdale-based Travis McGee novels and struck out for Broward County, where they lived aboard their boat, in Hollywood. With a kid to support, she returned to school, finally completing her bachelor's in English education. In 1988, she began work at Miami Carol City High School; later, she taught in Broward County schools.
She continued sailing too through the Bahamas, picking up a few bucks selling magazine articles for $75, maybe $125, and attempted a novel "so bad and so all-over-the-place" that by the end, its characters didn't even have the same names. But it wasn't until 1993 that she buckled down on what would become her first novel, Surface Tension. With James and young Tim, she sailed to Venezuela and through the Caribbean. They ran the generator for an hour a day, allowing her to type on her Macintosh.
In too-brief succession upon their return, she and James divorced, and he died of complications from a congenital heart problem. He was hard-headed, she says, and refused a surgery that would have allowed doctors to clean out an infection. "For a while there, I had guilt because I thought he would have been alive if we hadn't divorced," she says. When at last she finished the book and found an agent who could help revise it to a shoppable form, she says her cover letter explaining that she was a certified boat captain with 20 years' sailing experience helped get her into print. Surface Tension was published in 2002 with the dedication: "Tim, this one's for your dad." The advance, she said, came to about half the salary she made as a teacher.
"In living on land, so to speak, she seems to really get antsy," says Tim, now a film student at the University of Central Florida. "It's almost like she wants to go out and live these adventures just so she can write about them."
Her heroine, Seychelle Sullivan, is Kling's answer to MacDonald's McGee, resident of a houseboat in Fort Lauderdale, "salvager" of stolen goods. Through Seychelle, a female tugboat captain, Kling elegizes a fading Florida. "You have to look past the Chili's to the Downtowner," she says of the changes in Broward, while sitting outside the latter, on the edge of the New River. "These places still exist here."
Formative experience: When she was 17 years old in Paris, she hitchhiked with a 15-year-old friend. They accepted a ride from two Algerian men who drove from the main street onto a dirt road and stopped the car. The man in the passenger's seat turned around and began to unbutton the younger girl's shirt.
"I just remember going," and here the author mimes a haymaker punch, "BAM! as hard as I could at this guy, right on his face. He just turned around and looked at me and went" -- she motions another punch here -- "BAM!
"And he said, 'Get out! Get out!' We scrambled out of the car, in the middle of nowhere, in the mountains, but we were OK, other than an eye that got black." For anyone who considers Seychelle reckless, Kling points out that her heroine doesn't do anything Kling herself wouldn't.
The critics say: Nice things, including a little outside Florida. The Cleveland Plain Dealer liked Surface Tension, as did the Omaha World-Herald: "She writes a tight, fast paced yarn." The St. Petersburg Times called Surface Tension "an amazing debut novel," which seems warranted, if a little generous.
Why you don't know her yet: She's still a new writer, with only two books out. And maybe she is straddling traditional genres. Women don't typically go nuts for sailing, she figures, and men don't buy many books by women. "Now I say, 'What was I thinking?'" Kling says. "I'm screwed on both counts."
Working on: Putting a down payment on a Caliber 33 sailboat that can take her back to the high seas. And a book tentatively called The Wrecker, another Seychelle novel.
Broward Community College English teacher
Published: Miami Purity (1995), Iguana Love (1999), Voluntary Madness (2000), Sky Blues (2002).
Fiction muse: Noir pioneer John M. Cain.
Trademarks: Strong female leads, a focus on character rather than plot, an amount of graphic sex that borders on enough.
Excerpt: "The concrete was cool but hard, so I got him flat on his back with his hands behind his head. I held on to his biceps. I watched his slick dick move in and out while I squatted over him. I must've come three or four times real fast." -- from Miami Purity
The skinny: Hendricks, a thin blond with a quick laugh, taps into something that natives and stale transplants forget once they've endured even one summer of swamp heat: that South Florida is innately sexy. She grew up around Cincinnati, transferred college twice, got her master's in English from Florida Atlantic University in 1979, and has taught English at Broward Community College more or less since 1981.
Her master's thesis ten years ago became her first published book, Miami Purity, about an ex-stripper who goes to work at a seamy dry cleaner's. (Naturally, she took her circa-$300,000 advance and bought a 30-foot sloop that she then lived aboard in Fort Lauderdale for about a year.) Hendricks followed with Iguana Love (heroine goes in deep with dive instructor), Voluntary Madness (heroine stakes love on dying man), Sky Blues (heroine falls for skydiver), all with strong female leads and a narrative voice that, best Hendricks can figure, she distilled from listening to her Kentucky relatives as a kid. Devour it or trash it, Hendricks specializes in putting the reader inside women who don't behave. Such stories don't need to be set in South Florida, but it doesn't hurt.
"People say, 'All she does is think about sex, and women don't do that,'" Hendricks says. "You're in her head, so it's not like she's talking about it all the time. It seems fairly normal to me."
Hendricks updates the ol' bodice-ripper romance novel -- except the romantic acts in question transpire upon mattresses on the floor. And the heroine is in all likelihood driving the action, and the bodice in question is probably a faded, giveaway Milwaukee's Best T-shirt with cigarette burns. Really, it's good times.
"It's bawdy. It's out there," says Charlie Stella, a Mob-fiction author who started reading Hendricks' stuff on a friend's recommendation. "It's a woman, especially in Miami Purity, who's talking about getting on this guy's dick. The fact that she's having the same feelings that a guy will have about a woman, it's out there."
Hendricks figures South Florida attracts her sort: adventuresome and unsettled. The type that would traipse off to the Amazon or to Finland to go dog sledding. When she returned to Ohio for her 20th high school reunion, she found that most of her classmates at the all-girls Mother of Mercy had gone to work for their husbands and spent their days shuttling rug rats to little league. Only two of the 250 or so graduates were divorced. Guess who was one of them.
Formative experience: Getting hooked on skydiving a few years ago taught her about fear. Regularly on weekends, she ditches for Clewiston, a burg on the edge of Lake Okeechobee, and does maybe a half-dozen jumps with at least one night of hard drinking that makes for a sometimes-bedraggled arrival to teach her English students. It fed directly into the plot of Sky Blues but otherwise has curtailed the time she has to write -- and the money she has to spend. "Once you get the gear, which is $4,000 to $5,000, then it's only $20 a jump," she explains. "But you do four or five jumps a day, then there's all the beer you have to buy..."
The critics say: They love calling her a "guilty pleasure." The Sun-Sentinel's review of Miami Purity ran under the headline, "First novel features sex, sex, more sex." Babies. One online reviewer wrote that Hendricks' "classic elements" are a mystery, "a bastard," and "a lust-filled heroine desperate for orgasm." Sounds about right, except she doesn't really write mystery, because there's no question about who commits the crimes in her books.
Why you don't know her: She's too steamy for the crime crowd, too dark for the erotica folks. "I think I've managed to find a category that is really loved by very few people," she says. "They're either crazy about me or they hate me.
"I have had a couple of men say, 'The women I've known have never been that interested in sex,'" Hendricks says. "And I always want to say, 'Well, did it ever occur to you that it might have something to do with you?'"
Working on: Getting laid. Naw, just messing with you. She's in edits with her next novel and has several pending requests for erotica and noir short stories.
JAMES O. BORN
Special agent, Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE)
Published: Walking Money (2004), Shock Wave (2005).
Fiction muse: Military novelist W.E.B. Griffin.
Trademark: Realistic accounts of police work interspersed with jocular mayhem.
Excerpt: "The young guy in the sweatsuit lay on the floor with blood gushing from what was left of the top of his head. Tasker kicked the small revolver from the dead man's hand and watched it spin across the floor as he thought about the other three times he had taken a gun from a dead man's hand... Tasker felt something on his neck and looked up at the clumps of flesh and blood stuck to the ceiling, dripping down in swirling little wads. This hadn't worked out like they had planned." -- from Walking Money
The skinny: He was born in West Palm Beach, the son of a circuit court judge and a homemaker. He attended Florida State University because it had a good football team, was about as far away as he could drive on a single tank of gas, and was crawling with co-eds. There, he majored in psychology "based on the number of women in the class" and met his future wife, Donna, whom he instantly liked in part because, he says, she was the hottest girl at the university. They now have a 16-year-old son, John, and a 12-year-old daughter, Emily.
From FSU, he went for his psychology master's at Southern Mississippi, then returned to Palm Beach County to join the U.S. Marshals Service. Within a year, in 1987, he hired on with the Drug Enforcement Agency. It was then, on stakeouts, that he began to devour the sort of pulpy paperbacks that he thought he could top, at least in terms of realism. He hated that cops could get beat up and never feel pain, that local police deferred to the FBI, that officers would let private detectives look at murder cases.
"If I suggested that to my boss," Born says, "they would beat me and then fire me. And you know what? As I lay bleeding in the street, unemployed, I'd realize I deserved it."
Born had tinkered with a novel in the late '80s and received some encouragement from Elmore Leonard, whom he met through family friends. That started 13 years of being a closeted, unpublished novelist. In 2002, he sent a draft of Walking Money to a friend for suggestions. The friend forwarded it to an agent, who called Born, asked to represent the book, then within a couple of weeks scored a two-book deal from Putnam that Born evasively describes as "having made life a little more comfortable with us." At Putnam, Born is in good company. His editor, Neil Nyren, also handles Griffin, Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, and Dave Barry. He's finishing a third, and his fourth novel is in the early stages. To this point, he's started each successive book the same day he submitted the last completed one.
Formative experience: This will ring familiar to anyone who's read Shock Wave. In 1984, he was with a SWAT team, in plainclothes, staking out a Miami apartment, waiting for a murderer who had escaped from prison. The Sunday morning's Miami Herald was in his passenger seat, covering an MP-5 automatic machine gun. "These younger guys, early 20s, come up and rap on my window," Born said. "I roll it down and say, 'Whaddaya need?'"
The men asked, "What are you doing here?"
"Don't worry about it," Born replied.
"What do you need?" they asked.
"I don't need anything," Born said.
"Well," they asked, "what do you got?"
"I don't have anything," Born said.
"Well, in this neighborhood," they told Born, "you either need something or you got something."
Born didn't have time to dicker. "I said, 'Oh, I misunderstood you. You know what I got?'" He reached beneath his newspaper and brandished the firearm. "'I've got a submachine gun.' Which, how often do you have an automatic weapon to pull on someone who may be threatening you? They couldn't get out of the way fast enough."
The critics say: Flattering things. January Magazine gushed that Shock Wave is a "joy ride" and "a blast on every level." The Miami Herald's Broward cops reporter, Wanda DeMarzo, wrote that Walking Money "combines Elmore Leonard attitude with an 'only in Miami' sensibility."
Why you don't know him: His first book came out only a year ago. Last August for the Sun-Sentinel, he wrote a funny, first-person piece about a radio interviewer conducting half a live interview thinking Born was James Hall. "My psyche had been taught a cosmic lesson: I was nobody," he wrote.
Working on: Writing his ass off. Every day after work, he sits in an ugly, incredibly comfortable recliner and tickles his word processor for at least an hour. His third novel, Escape Clause, is due out early next year. He's cranking along on a fourth.
Bonus anecdote for the intrepid readers who have come this far: Following a book signing in Sarasota recently, Born recalls, an audience member complained about the wanton slaughter in his novels. "Someone came up and said, 'You can't be so cavalier about killing.' The ironic part about it was, I was thinking, 'I wish I could kill you right now. '"
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