In his first novel in 14 years, Brian Antoni proves the ingredients for fantasy need not include hobbits, witches, vampires, or any mythical creature or supernatural event. Instead, realistic characters in real places can be equally magical under the right narrative spell.
This seems the aesthetic Antoni has chosen for South Beach: The Novel, a frothy chronicle of the early `90s rise of its title hot spot, viewed through the lives of the varied residents of a run-down deco hotel.
Among these fantastic creatures: a gorgeous transsexual lipsyncher with no voice of her own; a cynical gossip columnist dying of AIDS; an elderly Holocaust survivor working for the Mob; a performance artist in flight from a bitter divorce and early success in New York; a famous designer with bad taste and extravagant passion for beautiful men; a Cuban rafter who becomes the hottest model in town.
At the center is the novel’s most ordinary character, Gabriel Tucker, a 29-year-old trust fund baby who wakes up in Tokyo one morning to find he is suddenly bankrupt except for an old hotel called the Venus de Milo Arms, inherited years earlier from his grandfather. After a decade aimlessly wandering the world’s glamour spots, Gabriel makes his first visit to Miami Beach to see what can be salvaged of his life and finances.
He finds South Beach in continual flux, still home to elderly Jews, poor-but-driven artists, and a blossoming hedonistic club scene. The inevitable celebrity infestation lies just around the corner. Meanwhile, local and international developers jockey ruthlessly to buy up and tear down the old deco buildings in favor of towering luxury condos.
Transfixed by the exotics living in his hotel, Gabriel is immediately drawn into the heady culture of artiness, drugs, drinking, profligate sex and orgiastic parties. He becomes friends with Skip Bowling, the columnist, and Miss Levy, the Holocaust survivor, who turns out to still be in love with his grandfather.
Gabriel plunges into the surf to save a prostrate Cuban rafter, Jesus, who becomes his best friend. He falls in love with the beauteous Marina, an artist who has no trouble exposing herself in performance, but is terrified of intimacy, even though she secretly shares his feelings.
As unlikely as it might seem, this hedonic existence gradually brings out Gabriel’s humanity, as he forges real relationships for the first time. And he gains purpose by resisting exorbitant offers to sell the hotel, struggles to restore it and make it pay, and becomes involved in the movement to spare the deco buildings from the wrecking ball.
We can assume South Beach is informed, in part, by Antoni’s own experiences. The scion of a well-off Bahamian family, he went to tony Pine Crest school. In the late `80s he bought and renovated a South Beach hotel named the Venus de Milo Arms, and participated in the period mythologized in the novel.
Antoni might easily have written a big, dense “city novel.” But there is an undeniable aptness to Antoni’s decision to turn the story into a neon fantasy, for perhaps fantasy best reflects the reality of a place like South Beach. He makes the most of it: All the major characters are beautiful, talented, incredibly lucky, and despite their bad habits, good at heart. Through various reversals and conflicts, they make us care about them as they wend toward a fairy-tale ending.
Could any straightforward narrative capture South Beach? Well, yes. Gwen Cooper’s Diary of a South Beach Party Girl, set a few years later, did the trick while hiding its moral seriousness under a chick-lit veneer. Antoni may take a very different approach, but with no less impressive results.
True, some readers may find Antoni’s novel slight or ephemeral. But it’s the ephemerality of good champagne served in a plastic flute.