I had occasion several years ago to talk with a blues singer, a man
of genteel demeanor whose congenital blindness was to a small
extent balanced by an uncanny ability to play complex guitar lines
and a singing voice that rang with rough joy and inevitable sorrow.
He claimed to be 89 years old at the time that I met him, and he
looked every day of it. The man told of playing rough juke joints,
where a slow night was defined by a low homicide count. Often, he
said, he would hear bodies being knocked over, chairs hitting solid
objects and occasional gunfire. When that occurred, he would stand
up and, guided by air currents, head for what he hoped was an open
door, calling out, "Please, nobody hurt this poor ol' blind man" as
if it was a litany. Somehow it worked.
I think of this conversation every time I encounter Serge Storms.
Storms is the unconventional protagonist who has sprung from the
muse of Tim Dorsey, and who is back among us in CADILLAC BEACH. As
with his other books, CADILLAC BEACH functions as a vehicle for
Dorsey's biting satirical commentary on south Florida and the folks
who call it home. As with his other novels, nothing in this one is
true, but all of it is accurate.
Storms is most likely afflicted with a mental illness, though I
doubt it could be properly diagnosed. It would probably be best
classified under affective disorders, characterized by
hyperactivity, looseness of association and delusions. His main
contribution to society is to keep things stirred up, and he does
an admirable job of this here. Like the blues singer I described,
he somehow manages to walk unscathed through the cataclysm that
swirls around him.
CADILLAC BEACH centers on an actual event, a 1964 jewel heist that
involved a nationally known surfing champion, amongst other lesser
lights. Storms's grandfather was apparently somewhat tenuously
involved in the aftermath of the heist, and Storms believes that he
was murdered as a result. He begins a search for his grandfather's
old friends, all of whom advise him to leave well enough alone.
Storms, of course, cannot do this, as readers who have encountered
him before well know. Naturally Storms's method of searching is
somewhat convoluted, involving, among other things, a gonzo touring
agency, the abduction of a Federally protected witness and an
attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro once and for all.
Dorsey's hyperkinetic style of writing is an acquired taste; he
frequently paints himself into absurd corners and then moves walls
to get out --- and at the conclusion of his work, including this
one, there is a feeling that the ending is the result of a "time to
wrap this up" impulse rather than a natural denouement. What cannot
be denied, however, is that Dorsey's writing is truly funny, laced
with subtle irony and frequent belly laugh-inducing pratfalls. The
juxtaposition of Miami between 1964 and the present is first-rate,
and Storms's tour spiel is fascinating as he points out landmarks
of note while bemoaning the loss of others.
CADILLAC BEACH, in effect, contains the genesis of a tour book that
will never be written, and that is a pity. Along the way Storms
functions as a bit of a court jester --- his comments about Miami
and South Florida are, more often than not, right on the mark, and
always funny; his plan for the liberation of Cuba, and the revenge
of the Cuban exiles upon Castro, is absolutely perfect. If the
symmetry that marks the conclusion of the novel is a bit of a
stretch, it's just Dorsey reminding the reader that this is,
indeed, a work of fiction. Not that we need any such
Dorsey is rapidly becoming the hyperkinetic king of Florida
alternative historians, and CADILLAC BEACH is the latest reason
why. Don't read it without fastening your mental seat belt,
however. You're going to need it.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 21, 2011