“People go to Key West for lots of different reasons. Joey Goldman went there to be a gangster.”
Thus begins Laurence Shames’ debut novel, Florida Straits (1992), the tale of Joey Goldman, half Sicilian, half Jewish twenty-seven-year-old illegitimate son of a New York mafia boss, who travels to the famed Florida city situated ninety miles from the coast of Cuba seeking a new life. Early in the novel Joey explains to his best friend Sal the reason for his move.
“I’m gonna like, take over.”
Sal questions this decision: “Take over what, Joey? This is what I’m asking you.”
“I guess I won’t know that till I get there, will I, Sal?”
So Joey packs his bags and, together with his girlfriend Sandra, the voice of reason in Joey’s life, departs for life down south. What he finds is quite different from what he expected.
This must be known about Key West: it is possibly the most unique, charismatic American town this side of New Orleans. In the 1970’s when the drug trade was at it worst, and shipments of narcotics were regularly unloaded in the Florida Keys, to be shipped by land to all parts of the country, the United States government established a road block just outside of Key West, stopping and searching cars heading north. The residents of Key West did not accept this situation lightly. They felt that they were being treated as if their town was a foreign country, with the roadblock an unofficial customs office. So they staged a symbolic secession from the United States and established the “Conch Republic.” To this day, residents refer fondly to their revolution and often insist that the rules of mainland U.S. do not apply to them.
That is what Joey Goldman finds when he reaches his destination, a quirky town filled with memorable characters who populate Shames’ novel: transvestites, Cuban mafia bosses, call girls with attitudes, a retired mobster whose escape from “the life” was only made possible by death (literally, on an operating table for several minutes before he was brought back), and an ancient, quivering Chihuahua who wears sunglasses to protect his cataract-afflicted eyes. These all help define the spirit of Joey’s newly-adopted town.
Joey’s early attempts to meld into the town’s character is described by Shames as follows:
On a breezy morning at the end of January, Joey Goldman stood in front of his bathroom mirror and tried to figure out how best to display his sunglasses on those rare occasions when he wasn’t actually wearing them. Some guys, he’d noticed, hooked them around their second shirt button, and let them hang straight down. This was stylish, Joey thought, but maybe, well, a little feminine. Of course, he could simply drop them in his breast pocket, but then they were invisible, he got no benefit at all. Maybe the suave compromise was to put them in the pocket, but with an earpiece looped outside.
Joey’s attempts to “take over” the town fall flat. Instead of creating a new criminal enterprise, he winds up selling timeshares to tourists. Yet he and Sandra both learn to love their new life and the unusual personages that surround them.
The novel’s storyline involves a Miami don’s attempts to recover three million dollars’ worth of uncut emeralds and the problems Joey and Sandra encounter when they become caught up in the hunt. Characters from their past, including Joey’s half-brother Gino, a borderline psychopath, also feature prominently in Shames’ tale, highlighted by crisp, rapid dialogue.
Yet the true star of Shames’ novel is the town of Key West. The author depicts an amusing, appealing, charismatic place that is very faithful to the city’s Conch roots.
Shames has since written several other novels, many also situated in Key West, featuring some of the same characters of Florida Straits. Yet, while those novels contain enjoyable elements, he has not come close to fully recapturing the charm of his debut work.
Florida Straits is an amusing, fast-paced read, recommended for anyone wishing to bring a slice of the Conch Republic into otherwise “normal” everyday lives.