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.”