American Tropic is set in Key West, the same location as Thomas Sanchez’s masterful Mile Zero, published in 1990. Only no location stays the same for almost a quarter of a century.
The city is still a confluence of Bahamian, African, Cuban and American music, climate and spirit, still all too literally the end of the road for some inhabitants. But the place has changed.
Mile Zero was an interior novel, concerned with the problem of a Vietnam veteran and his cohort set in what was then essentially a fishing and drug importing town with a tourist-friendly edge. Scroll forward 23 years, and although the island still has a similar aroma — lime juice, stale beer and liquids not printable by name in this newspaper — it has become Glitz City. Proposed construction in the Great White Heron preserve threatens to cut off the ocean view for many of the residents and turn Cayo Hueso into a monument to rebar and bulldozers. Luxury condos! Hotels! Golf courses! A yacht marina!
While the attention of many environmentalists has turned to polar conditions, the ocean water has reached a danger point along the Keys, so much so that the only living coral reef in North America is dying of thermal pressure. Greedheads are illegally netting century-old turtles and selling the remains to Asians who consider turtle a general cure-all and a specific substitute for Viagra.
Noah Sax, a disbarred and rum-soaked lawyer, has become a radio eco-jock broadcasting from a boat outside the continental limits warning the residents and the tourists who disgorge daily from cruise ships about the island’s perilous condition. He’s one of the few good guys. Another is a veteran with titanium plates in his head, Hogfish, who bicycles around warning everyone of El Finito, his fantasy hurricane, which will destroy the island. Could happen.
Meanwhile, there’s the plot. Somebody dressed in a full-body rubber skeleton suit is killing the villains with a spear gun, tying the bodies to buoys, lighthouses and bat towers. Two who have escaped as the story unfolds are Big Conch, the developer, and Hard Puppy, the man who runs all the pit bull fights between Miami and Key West.
Perhaps the most interesting element of American Tropic is the ambient noise. The bar fights, the tourist-clogged streets, the cannons that announce the start of jet-propelled yacht races, the TV news helicopters, the Coast Guard cutters. Reading the novel, we get the sense, from time to time, that we are living in Baghdad.
Unfortunately, unlike Mile Zero, American Tropic is merely a page turner and those who have read, say, T.C. Boyle, have turned those pages before. Both good and bad characters are reader-friendly generalizations who carry a lot of exposition in dialogue: “People who immigrated to Key West in the 1880s with nothing and built a life. Hard-working people who had pride and morals.”
That’s Luz Zamora talking, a fifth generation black Cuban-American lesbian police office whose younger daughter is dying of leukemia. She has breast cancer. Her father, a former police chief, died of lung cancer.
Here’s Sax, explaining to his estranged wife Zoe, why he was disbarred: “I was prosecuting corporate bastards drilling illegal wells in protected tidelands. Toxic sludge killing off wildlife. Politicians paid off. Nobody had the guts to stand up to them. Masters and slaves, same as it ever was. At least one day, in one courtroom, before the judge let the criminals off, I could expose them” Small victories.
Sanchez is correct, of course, in his view of the challenged environment of Key West and the greedy and corrupt people responsible, but at moments American Tropic makes a James Bond movie seem subtle by comparison.
Betsy Willeford is a writer in Miami.