The Florida Keys: From Key Largo to Key West.

While I was submerged in Joy Williams’s novel Breaking and Entering, set in Florida, I discovered that she’d written this guidebook that came out in 1987. Insanely great although I would be terrified to bring it with me to Key West and see what rubble remains of what she’s described.

This is no ordinary guidebook. Stories are shared about why dogs aren’t allowed in this bar or how this other bar has patron who gets on the bar and does an imitation of a railroad. Her best stuff is really for the ride on the way down to Key West, the 100+ miles of Route 1. Past Crawl Key there’s a place called Adventure Island, “a feverish dream for the highly active, where there are sailboat, catamaran, sunfish, and jet-ski rentals. You can also have the thrilling rackety fun of a helicopter ride. There was ambition here once—there are 27 picnic tables behind the tiki-bar—but excited intentions have given way to exhausted somnolence. A bored Rottweiler is tied beneath a broken barbecue stand by the helicopter pad, and parrotfish with toothy smiles graze in the waters off the dock.”

Other poetry: “Look upon it, this tangled swamp, and be both respectful and glad.” One resort is mentioned in the possible lodgings section: “you can get a small room in a trailer here for $25, if you don’t mind sharing it with an enormous TV. Fantasize that you are in a fifties movie. You are on the lam. You are attempting to escape something terrible. You sit on the green plaid bedspread and listen to your breathing. No one will ever find you here.”

Half of the book takes you the route down to Key West, and then she spends the second half wandering that old town. Williams writes that Key West, “which is so singular in its architecture and attitude, its posturing and fancifulness, its zany eclecticism, its seedy tropicality, is a town come upon unseen, unexpected, the something else almost felt. It is an urbane, isolated, freewheeling, lighthearted, gossipy, and eccentric town. There is a sense of adventure here, of excess and individuality. It’s odd. Actually odd. It is rather a dirty town and has very little dignity, but it has style.”

Naturally, the tourists (and cruise ships) have ruined everything, especially a particularly nice sunset spot. “If you don’t have a camera you will probably be elbowed away from various sights by those who do… The Mayor had to promise sunset devotees that whatever gargantuan [cruise] ship docked there will have left each day before the sun goes down. The crowds mob this congested spot. Street entertainers quarrel with parking lot attendants. Merchants quarrel with street vendors. The City Commission wanting sunsets ‘to be maintained’ has set up a committee to explore the possibility of an alternative site for sunset activities. The sunset has become something of a problem.”

Breaking and Entering

A gorgeously strange melancholy novel from Joy Williams, pub’d in 1988. I’d only read her short stories before and was amazed to find myself submerged in this full length tale; at first, the chapters seemed like short stories in themselves, only with the characters continuing on, and then I realized belatedly I was reading a novel. It’s a dreamy, unreal story with an epigram from André Breton before the second half, “It is living and ceasing to live that are imaginary solutions. Existence is elsewhere.”

Liberty and Willie are a married couple who float through life, breaking into houses in Florida just to see what other people’s lives are like. Liberty rescued a big white dog, Clem, from a mailbox, and he follows her around freaking out other people. They befriend a security guard who assumes they’re just guests of the people who own the house. Eventually they leave this house, head back to the one they’re renting, back to the town where they’re somewhat known. Drunk Charlie is in love with Liberty but she’s too far gone on Willie to care. Willie takes off for a week or so, calls Liberty to tell her to jump into the tide at a certain time and she’ll be swept to the key where he is. She obeys, they end up at a house of a body-building septuagenarian rich woman who worms their origin story out of them (met as kids, Liberty’s parents abandoned her to be brought up by Willie’s parents, pregnant at 15, suicide pact gone awry, no more babies possible). Liberty leaves Willie there and floats back to their headquarters, ends up talking to Charlie at the bar and then he’s stabbed by her neighbor. They drive through a car wash to try and wash the pee (the neighbor’s) off the car and this is possibly where Charlie dies, but it’s the end so who knows.

“She remembered feeling once that anything was possible. The sky was bright and blue and she was walking fast and could go anywhere. But that had been a moment years ago, and since that moment she had felt that her life was like someone else’s garden she had wandered into, something she could care for or not, like one did another’s garden.”

“After she stopped wailing, I lingered for a moment and listened to the wind in the trees. They were whispering something that at the time made an enormous deal of sense. Never have I heard the susurrus of branches so clearly.”

The Visiting Privilege

Joy Williams is aptly named for the joy she brings readers (along with twinges of sadness, awe, disbelief, amazement, smirks). This is being billed as the definitive collection of her short stories, along with a sheaf of new ones at the end that hold up under scrutiny along with the golden oldies. Warning: it’s impossible to read this book straight through on a rainy weekend hunkered down in a remote cabin– you feel compelled to shut the book after each delicate jewel of a story ends, taking deep breaths, eyes gazing out at the misty skies. I didn’t attempt to mark page that delighted me with usual dogeared fold, too herculean a task to mark every page for re-perusal. A single sample will have to do:

“Well, aren’t we going over there tonight to watch him?” Julep asked nervously, swinging her eyes heavily toward her friend. Looking often cost Julep a great deal of effort, as though her eyes were boxes of bricks she had to push around in front of her.

Nearly every story in the book is a knock-out punch, so that’s almost forty-six blows you must endure over 500 pages. It’s worth it.
Reco’d via the NYT article forwarded by eagle-eyed microtragedy.