Men in Miami Hotels
by Charlie Smith
Harper Perennial; 304 p.
As I read Charlie Smith’s new novel, Men in Miami Hotels, I kept thinking of two things: the purpose of lovely, meticulous prose in the context of a crime novel (or any novel for that matter), and Elmore Leonard.
Men in Miami Hotels follows tough guy Cot Sims, a mid-level soldier in the “Harvard” of South Florida crime syndicates. He returns to his home town of Key West to snatch a stash of jewels belonging to his boss, Gustave Albertson. Cot plans to exchange the jewels for cash to help save his mother’s house. His score goes missing, Albertson is tipped, and suddenly Cot, his lifelong sweetheart, Marcella, and his mother are on the run, puddle jumping their way to safety. Cot tries desperately to navigate his way through an increasingly treacherous gauntlet of desire, misplaced loyalties, jealousy, and violence—and must eventually grapple with the reality that his life has spun horribly and possibly irrevocably out of control.
It’s easy to be reminded of the recently departed Leonard here. This is after all, even if only on a skeletal level, a crime novel, one set in the Florida Keys, Miami, and Cuba. That’s Dutch’s turf. Smith, however, is undertaking loftier pursuits and tracking more nuanced emotional terrain than what is generally associated with Leonard. Men in Miami Hotels has the requisite amount of kiss-kiss bang-bang to mollify the gods of convention, but at its core, it’s the story of a guy who just keeps fucking up and trying his damnedest to figure out why.
Unlike in a Leonard novel, character and plot are essentially afterthoughts here. What we learn of Cot—he’s from Key West, reads Virginia Woolf and Virgil, likes to play the ponies, and can fly a plane—is interesting enough as a rudimentary composite. Marcella is a lawyer; her husband is also a lawyer. Cot’s mother likes animals, and Cot’s best friend, CJ, is a transvestite cabaret singer. Everybody likes mangoes. All are basic character sketches with a little touch of quirk. Bits of history and background drift in and out of the narrative, but the details never really coalesce. The plot, though actually quite action-packed when stacked up, moves along in casual fits and starts. Chases ensue, and there are explosions. People are frequently shot and killed, sometimes tragically and horrifically. And yet Cot, who resides directly in the center of all of these events and is the principal catalyst for them, remains curiously reserved. He’s no stone-cold killer or a miscreant Bodhisattva, though.
Instead, Co (like everybody and everything in this novel) seems merely to drift along on the gentle lilt of Smith’s prose. Sure, Cot might kill a guy, but he might not notice or even care if he does. I’m not entirely sure Smith does either, as he often seems more interested in the intricacies of his own prose than how that prose might be used to bolster and expound upon the principle components of the novel he happened to have written.
This kind of writing isn’t without comparison or precedent. Denis Johnson has for years guided damaged and broken antiheroes through a hypnogogic America on the strength of language alone. And while this is clearly Smith’s goal, Men in Miami Hotels feels like a bit of a disappointment. Smith is an undeniably skilled writer, though, sometimes brilliantly so. An accomplished poet, he evokes the tranquil yet askew rhythms of the Keys and the lush natural world that frame them with evocative, fecund language. You’ll occasionally find yourself rereading sentences simply for enjoyment’s sake. I found the following to, ironically, capture perfectly both Smith’s capabilities and his odd disengagement with his story: “An orange cat sits up in a lime tree staring at some little black-faced birds flickering around the top of a nearby manila palm. The birds don’t seem to mind.” The birds are apparently as intrigued by their predator’s intentions as Smith is by those of the killers that are everywhere in this novel.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this sort of stylized disconnect. Smith’s prose is far from purple and it has pluck, so if one is willing to forgo gratification on a standard narrative level, there’s much to enjoy here. Yet too often these asides feel like a distraction for Smith from the mundane yet hard work of truly grappling with the narrative world he has created. We get plenty of inner life here. Cot is a rigorously thoughtful man despite his pathological need to always do the wrong thing, and we’re certainly provided plenty of digressions into the sprawling terrain of his inner analyst. The subtlest form of emotional exchange or physical interaction is deconstructed and reconfigured with the kind of smart, polished literary chops that garner fellowships and grants. Yet in the end Smith has mortgaged the most basic needs of a story in favor of his own prose. The novel concludes with a series of genuinely affecting revelations, but by the time we get there, we’ve been so smothered by Smith’s endless barrage of “brilliant sentences” that not even the most exquisite of them can make things right.
Say what you will about Elmore Leonard; he wrote pure pulp tailored made for mass consumption. His prose was flashy and blunt and his characters existed to serve the plot and were as disposable as the paper their lives were printed on. Yet with the flick of a minor detail or the slick turn of a brief phrase, Leonard was able to conjure a veritable lifetime for the most lowdown thug, one jammed with emotion, motivation, and self-awareness for the both the character and the reader. That said, it is a mastery of prose that can heighten an otherwise conventional novel to the level of masterpiece. No one expects Charlie Smith to be held hostage to the conventions of the genre he chose to work with. And he does a serviceable job of subverting those conventions while never abandoning them. But rather than giving us a crime novel brought to new heights by a stunning use of language, we get a sketch of a story and a mess of a man both crushed by the words used to bring to them to life.