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Florida Fancy // Key West culture clash


By Laurence Shames

Hyperion, $21.95

Reviewed by Robert Plunket

These certainly are great days for Florida, literary-wise. The "Florida novel" has become a staple of the best-seller lists, with names like Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard, Edna Buchanan and even Jimmy Buffet appearing regularly. The public loves these books, and lately even the more serious critics are hopping on board, summoned by the recent massive re-issue of John D. MacDonald's seminal Travis McGee series. The reason for all this success is hardly surprising. These days people read novels only on vacation, and the Florida novel is the ultimate vacation book _ cunningly designed, no matter what its pretensions, to be savored poolside while slightly drunk.

One of the beauties of the form is its infinite elasticity. It can be grim, moral, satirical, fun, silly _ just about anything the author has in mind. One of the leading practitioners of the comic division is Laurence Shames, whose previous novels include Sunburn and Florida Straits. His new book, Tropical Depression, follows firmly in their footsteps, and if it shows how amusing a Florida novel can be, it also reveals some of the genre's drawbacks.

Our unlikely hero is Murray Zemelman, a bra manufacturer from New Jersey, who finds himself in Key West in the clutches of his second midlife crisis. The first one was a bust, literally. He left his lovely first wife Franny _ now living in tasteful retirement in Sarasota _ for a bimbo brassiere model and he can't take it anymore. Furthermore, he's become a Prozac addict.

After renting a penthouse in a highrise across from Smathers Beach, he decides to take up fishing _ it seems so relaxing _ and in the process meets an Indian named Tommy Tarpon who sells seashells by the seashore. Tommy is the last of a proud Matalatchee Nation, whose homeland is a hideous mosquito-covered island about 10 miles offshore. By this time I'm sure the words "casino gambling" are beginning to form in your mind and, let me assure you, they certainly do form in the minds of the characters.

The characters in Tropical Depression are _ as in any real Florida novel _ an odd mix of our state's unusual demographic makeup, all in conflict with each other over some goal, usually the very land itself. You have your old Florida redneck, your Hispanic, your Jew, your Indian, your retiree, your criminal _ all plotting against each other, usually in their own ethnic way. The redneck is a bully, the Indian is smart in ways white men aren't, and the Jew calls his shrink. It's this built-in culture clash that gives the form its vitality _ and in Tropical Depression's case, much of its humor.

A Florida novel needs a good solid plot and Tropical Depression has one. At the same time, like any Florida novel, you read it for other reasons _ the highly charged atmosphere, the escapist quality, the author's pithy observations, which, I guess to say, are the author's personality. Shames' personality is that of the professional funnyman _ an expert on set-up and timing, on keeping the audience with him, but a little weaker when it comes to doing something new and original.

As Florida novels go, Tropical Depression is a success but a modest one. It's a highly visual book that lives intensely in the moment. Yet at times it seems glib. You feel each mosquito bite, each wave of heat. Yet Key West is evoked in a very sketchy way. (This may be the first Key West novel that doesn't mention the Cookie Lady, which may well be a step in the right direction.) Still, it's deft and sure, and the company is lively. You know you're in the hands of a pro. If you add a pitcher of Margaritas, it will do just fine.

Robert Plunket, author of Love Junkie, is a gossip columnist for Sarasota Magazine.