Fiction

This gangster has feelings in Charlie Smith’s ‘Men in Miami Hotels’

 

As they say of all good self-destructive noir protagonists, trouble seems to follow Cotland Sims wherever he goes, and it has followed him home.

Protagonist of the eighth novel from highly lauded poet and author Charlie Smith, Cot is a veteran Miami gangster, and trouble is his stock and trade, but his only goal at the beginning of Men in Miami Hotels to rustle up enough cash to clear up the issue of his mother’s Key West home, which has fallen off of its stilts and subsequently been condemned.

To this end, he steals a pouch of emeralds (literally buried treasure) from under the nose of his former employer, a heavy-hitter named Albertson who knows how to hold a grudge. The stones go missing almost immediately, with Cot’s old friend CJ killed in the process, and soon every bad man with a gun in the state of Florida has Cotland — and those he loves — in his crosshairs.

On the surface, the plot is composed of the sort of set pieces that would make for a good summer blockbuster: machine-gunners, plane crashes, yacht explosions. But in Smith’s masterfully lyrical prose, what could have been a simple pulpy adventure becomes a rewarding, and even challenging, examination of time, fate and fatalism that recalls the best work of Denis Johnson or Robert Stone.

Although Cot can more than handle himself in the field, he’s no goon, and Smith describes with wrenching beauty how acutely he feels his own failures: “He wishes his whole life could simply stop — so he could sneak around behind it, work on it and if he couldn’t fix it escape out the back. … Old desires crawl on his skin, spiral up from the inside, circle his heart like an abashed tribe that’s lost everything, and he can’t remember what he wanted to say.”

As the story grows darker and the violence escalates with the implacability of a nightmare, the initially clear moral universe turns on its head in an unsettling inversion reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Like Eastwood’s character in that movie, when Cot gives full expression to his true nature, the bodies of foes and friends pile up.

Men in Miami Hotels may seem odd or inaccessible to some readers because it’s so peerless. Authors who concern themselves with gun fights and gambling often don’t care much to stop and describe an old woman’s hands (“Knotted rope stained purple”) or the full measure of the hopes and regrets of characters seen only in passing. But Smith, warrior-poet to the core, thrives in uncharted waters. Leave the wheelbarrows and blackbirds for the others, and he will take the Uzis and the existential anguish.

Nicholas Mancusi is a writer in New York.

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