The Tree Breaks Free of the Forest: Charlie Smith’s "Men in Miami Hotels"

August 19, 2013   •   By Kathleen Alcott

Men in Miami Hotels

Charlie Smith

AMONG ITS MANY GIFTS are pilfered emeralds, whispered phone conversations, adulterous sex beneath tropical trees, shots fired from speeding boats and cars, and ciphers delivered by couriers. In many respects, Smith’s seventh novel, Men in Miami Hotels is a crime novel. But under the author’s deft hand, and given its obsession with human failings, Men in Miami Hotels becomes something other — and much more — than that.

Cotland “Cot” Sims, an erudite though passionate gangster, has returned from Miami to his native Key West to take care of his aging mother, Ella. The task  — that already difficult and nearly ineluctable piece of adult life  — becomes further complicated when his mother refuses to leave his childhood home, a property recently declared environmentally damaged and uninhabitable by the city. Ella instead putters around a slipshod living room set up underneath its crooked stilts, “[L]ying awake […] making up her life, fiddling with the pieces, fragments and unraveled bits, knitting fresh strands of ridiculous makeshift into the fabric, a living example of how crazy we all are.” Cot, desperate to help his mother, but penniless on account of a gambling habit and a life lived generally myopically, opts to thieve his boss’ hidden sparkling green gems, to bribe the city into proclaiming his childhood home safe. But the impulsive heist doesn’t go smoothly, and Cot’s return home becomes, instead, a series of escapes, a feedback loop of hijacked transportations that lead him, eventually, across the Gulf of Mexico to his father’s Havana.

Along for the ride hang a richly drawn string of Cot’s nearest and dearest friends, all of whom variously drive and hinder Cot. CJ — erstwhile high school football captain, childhood best friend, and locally celebrated transvestite performer — volunteers to harbor the emeralds, but perishes within the first 30 pages. He, as well as the vanished gems, are the first in a cache of casualties. Marcella — district attorney, wife of county prosecutor Ordell, and Cot’s first and only love — is his reluctant and efficient right-hand (wo)man,  one who arrives at each new disaster with a sensible bag of fresh clothes and crisp bills, but criticizes his vocation as she enables it. His mother Ella, a professor of and believer in the paranormal, ever-accompanied by a frequently tearful and good-hearted homeless man, also color the system of exits, kidnappings, chases, and plane crashes. While Cot was initially motivated by his mother’s melancholic conundrum — stuck under a once–house dreaming of her once–husband in Cuba — this motive is soon trumped by the threat of losing all members of this family to the crime boss and his cronies’ tempers. Through increasingly pathetic revelations and hastily composed postcards sent from gas stations, Cot arrives at the belief that surviving might finally mean purchasing a home, fathering Marcella’s child, and reuniting his mother with his elusive Cuban father. “He was always,” writes Smith of his protagonist, “falling for something that looked permanent.”

Cot and the people he loves are all in the business of building byzantine and fiercely held fantasies — and adhering to the circumspect and noncommittal existence such fantasies require. Cot’s graphic novelist father, an apostrophic figure for most of the book, has left his family and worn away the years in Cuba. Unable to accept the reality of his life, he projects his shortcomings into his writing. “Everyone in his books was some better-realized version, some prophesied and never-found version, of himself, even the villains.” Cot and Marcella, who met as children speaking to each other underwater in a neighborhood pool, return to each other perennially and commit to each other never; they’ve never known a domestic squabble or a communal bed, preferring the freedom of what could be. “They hadn’t had to fight to get out and they didn’t have to fight to get back in. ‘It’s like we got vaporized and reconstituted,’ he’d said.” Marcella, the cold-and-colder wife of a hound dog husband who skulks in her wake, is fearful of “flying in planes where she knows the pilot. I picture his inadequacies, she once said to him.” (One of her other lovers, another criminal and also a wisher, enjoys mentally referring to her to by his “favorite name for a woman,” and hopes to align his reveries with hers: “She dreamed all the time of a new life. It was the kind of dream you could put anything into: love, children, wrestling matches on late drunken midnights, kisses like flower petals falling from a tamarind tree […] In any version of it she would hate to be called Ceci.”) Smith’s cast of shadowy creatures is forever partially displaying, then hastily withdrawing, its visions of possibility, instead settling for fleeting satisfactions. A thought arrives “fully formed, like a new law,” and that’s how decisions are made: by pushing the dream to the just-viewable horizon for later consideration.

The emotional veracity of these characters is only one in a host of departures from the crime paradigm. Rather than zipping around in sharply angled cars, the shadowy acolytes of Cot’s boss, Albertson, pop up with varying degrees of commitment and often remorse. They issue bullets and apologies (“I don’t know what came over me,” says an avuncular killer/comrade named Burt) in equal measure. The gangsters are not evil, we come to realize, but simply painted into a lifetime-shaped corner. These are people who adore the orange blossoms of the poinciana trees, who feel sorrow for death, and who offer coffee and tender insights to those they may later betray or kill. Even Albertson, the ringmaster, tenders quiet moments and muses about the good that might emerge in his lifetime. “There’s something about me that has never been touched,” he thinks.

The divergence from rugged benevolence and calculated evil rub against artfully placed signs of modernity. The environment, we can tell, has lost its temper with the irresponsible behavior of its inhabitants: “Birds falling out of the sky. Fishes washing up on beaches — what few fishes there are. Raccoons wandering into the yards coughing like smokers.” Smith’s Florida tourists enjoy globular apparatuses that permit them to enjoy the water by walking upon it, and smartphone screens make betrayal easier. Albertson’s lackeys occupy an odd reflexive space in which they think about shooter video games and those 3D promises of gory evisceration as they pull their pistols, and consider the language of movies made about their kind as they pose their last words to a victim. Cot, all too aware of these pop culture mirrors, teases at the clichés with a mixture of tenderness and aggression. When informed by a husky telephone voice of a twilight delivery deadline, Cot retorts: “That the beginning of twilight or do I have all the way to the end? Twilight lasts a while.”

Amid these reflective surfaces, uncertain allies, and tenuous schemes, Cot persists as a sincere character. As the figures he has always relied on vanish or die, he pays reverence to the objects they leave behind, visits the places where they are buried, and even takes to sleeping in mausoleums. Cot’s goal, we understand early on, is to prove that he loved. If those entombed souls just might be listening and willing to vote with confidence for his devotion, then keening over their graves is worth a shot. Even the foolishly snatched emeralds at the heart of the crimes belie Cot’s intent to obtain something that is irresistible because of its immutable beauty and inflexible worth.

Smith, a seasoned fiction writer as well as the author of seven volumes of poetry, performs the acrobatic feat of reconciling the lingual worlds while having a laugh. Cot’s philosophical cogitations, which are endearing more often than they are obnoxious, meet conversational air with a humbling humor. If Smith has chosen Cot as his poetic vessel, he has also occasioned the weary, blue-collar reactions to his grandiose reaches. In describing the prospective journey home as an opportunity to halt his soul’s putrefaction to an old friend on a back porch, Cot does not receive any validation. “‘I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about’, Sonny said.” Although Smith appropriates the language to fit his own ideas of fun, sometimes following discursions around dimly lit bends, he tugs at the reins often enough — by virtue of some airtight ontological observation, or a character’s emphatic eyeroll — that we grant him our forbearance. Like many great teachers, Smith, it seems, has just got to tell us one quick story, about pickled eggs on a convenience store counter or some other incongruity, in order to arrive at the message.

Men in Miami Hotels exists — mostly successfully — as an oddity of content breaking free of form. Its shortcomings seem nearly inevitable, given the trappings of the blueprint the book aims to follow. As it turns out, developing an intimate relationship with the protagonist of a crime novel is exhausting for the reader: knowing so precisely the colors of his boyhood, the shape of his wishes, and the breadth and thus potential of his dexterity, sometimes makes following him on his maladroit crime spree wearisome. Smith confers such a likeable, layered fuck-up that the plot’s Whac-A-Mole texture — a thrilling feature of most crime accounts — becomes not a source of stimulation, but a manufacturer of frustration. If Gene Hackman’s character in The French Connection were instead our favorite uncle, one we knew to write thoughtful letters to his mother and save hurt animals, we wouldn’t feel as enthusiastic about his reckless chase of a speeding train; we’d urge him toward a glass of water and a nap, and another, less violent solution. This is certainly what the reader can’t help but hope for Cot, a character so sympathetically portrayed that my eyes welled, on more than one occasion, at the great peril he pathologically chases, and the misfortune that results. Because the author has a realistic understanding of behavior and consequence, the characters are not easily saved by some gleaming getaway boat or the fall of one villain; their fates are often tragic.

Men in Miami Hotels is Smith’s seventh novel, and an achievement in what appears to be a thread of them: Smith is the recipient of a Guggenheim, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, The Paris Review Aga Khan prize, and a collection of other jewels that declare him an important talent. The New York Times called his last novel, Three Delays, “a paean to a lurid, lavish, buzzing and heart-pulping world.” Why, then, haven’t his strange stunners joined the canon? (In a poem published in 1998,  “One Possible Meaning,” Smith wrote: “The park is dusty, dark, yet the children / Ignored all day, play on, convinced their dedication / Releases a magic that changes everything.”)

A mastery such as Smith’s is rare, and of the sort that requires of its audience a significant well of sweat and focus: a nearby dictionary is ideal, as Smith is a collector and repurposer of unusual verbs and adjectives, and only the cleanest attention will truly grasp the scope of his hijinks as they leap. But the bounties furnished are great: pearls of understanding that circle some kind of holy instruction; the author’s gifts to us for better navigation in our own stories; and tools that we will access long after the precise arrangement of words has left us.


Kathleen Alcott resides in Brooklyn, where she is completing her second novel.