South Beach Story:
Brian Antoni and the way we lived then
By John Hood
Some cats have all the luck. When they trip, it’s over a satchel of cash. When they crack, the light gets let in. When they get knocked in the noggin, it makes ’em more thoughtful. And when they bottom out, it’s straight to the top of the world. Oh, yes, let’s not forget that thing about the nine lives, which keep compounding with interest the more that they live.
Such is the story of one Gabriel Tucker, the lucky ne’er-do-wrong in Brian Antoni’s just-out South Beach: The Novel (Black Cat, $13). A trust fund baby recently devoid of his trust fund, he not only keeps coming into loot and landing on his feet, but also keeps learning how to live life to its fullest- and to its freakiest.
This being South Beach then, the freak is on full: Genders get bent outta shape, drugs are devoured to excess, sex is as frequent as breath and the barbarians have stormed the gates and set up velvet ropes. But this is 1997 – when the rad rush to judgment was still in its infancy.
What wasn’t in its infancy, however, was the way South Beach locals felt about their Strip and their neighbors. Drag queens and Holocaust survivors: good. Artists and crackpots: also good. Drug dealers and hustlers: necessary. Developers: bad, bad and worse. It was a time when a clear and present line was drawn in the sand and woe came to those who didn’t know how to cross it.
South beach revisits that time and that place with a grace that can only come about from one who was present at its robust creation. A descendent of Caribbean aristocracy who’s spent the last 20-some-odd years smack in the middle of the action, Antoni was there all right. But to say he’s been there and done that would belittle the fact that the cat’s been there and done it all – and then some.
Antoni, who counts among his correspondences bylines at both Men’s Journal and Ocean Drive, first broke spine with ’94’s Paradise Overdose, another rollick of a novel featuring a semi-similar alter ego set loose in the tropics. In Overdose, though, Antoni did the Bahamas, and the requisite long, dark nights of soul-searching seemed completely controlled by island tides. South beach’s prevailing tides, by contrast, are the tides – and the ides – of a very different march.
And like all dutiful soldiers, Antoni tells the tale the way it was – no holds barred and no heart untouched. the motley cast of colorful characters who coexisted knowing full well that they were all in on something remarkable; the fever and the fervor of the mad, the bad and the dangerous each finding a home of their own – what they made, what they gained and, yes, what they lost in the shuffle. Sure, South Beach was a boom town, but its boom was less about busting the bank book and more about breaking the ties that bind us in mind and spirit.
As always, I won’t spoil the story. I will say that in addition to Friar Tucker, its core consists of a fetching (if damaged ) artist (Marina), a shady matron (Miss Levy), a pain-fond gossip columnist (Skip Bowling) and a beautiful balsero (Jesus). Eating at its core is a ringer for Versace (Fabrizio) and a stand-in for Thomas Kramer (Heinz Lerman), both of whom can be credited with ushering in the whirl that made the world turn better or worse, depending on which side of 1997 you arrived.
Antoni’s clearly aligned with the latter. to him (and to me), the Beach was infinitely better before Warsaw became Jerry’s Deli and Salvation got inexplicably transformed into an Office Depot; before chain stores replaced mom-and-pop shops, condo towers shadowed hurricane shacks and Deco delights were demolished for their land. And if the overriding conflict in his story is about saving a deliciously decrepit building (the Venus de Milo Arms), it’s also about saving the soul of a particular place.
Alas, that place no longer exists, except, of course, in South beach. And if you’re among those who didn’t get to do the town when it was at its most undone, well, now’s your chance to see what all the muss and the fuss was about. No, it will never happen again. But with Antoni’s historically fictive chronicle, you can pretend it happened to you.