Every corner of the United States has been stereotyped. New York is mugger central, and Dallas is big-hat country. Boston breeds blue bloods, and Chicago nurtures political scoundrels. Los Angeles panders to granola-eaters, and Seattle markets grunge musicians.
And Florida? Well, just read the headlines and then ask yourself a question: Would you drive a rental car around Miami? Only if you want to entertain a death wish.
Stereotypes, though, are a lot like Magic Eye paintings: Look hard enough at what’s presented to you and the true image will finally appear.
So in terms of Florida, sure, it has something of a problem with crime. But that’s hardly the whole picture.
“I think it’s sort of the same thing that people do with the Pacific Northwest and rain,” says Florida novelist James W. Hall. “They say, ‘Oh, it rains all the time. I wouldn’t want to go there.’ “Yes we do have crime in Florida, but most of it has to do with drugs in a closely confined battleground area that, if you stay clear of, you’re safe. I’ve never been personally a victim of crime, and I’ve lived here for 30 years.”
Hall, who will read from his novel “Gone Wild” at 7:30 tonight at Auntie’s Bookstore, knows a lot about stereotypes. As a writer of contemporary hard-boiled fiction, he is typically categorized as a genre writer. His six books, which include “Bones of Coral,” “Hard Aground” and “Mean High Tide,” share shelf space with the likes of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen.
And here’s where the stereotype comes in: In some circles, a genre writer is considered to be something less than a serious artist.
Don’t try to sell that notion to Hall.
“I’ve tried in all the books to do something beyond the genre,” he says. “But if I fail, I don’t mind because I respect the genre enough, and I think you can accomplish a lot within the parameters of the traditional thriller.”
He’s not the only one who believes that genre fiction offers something more than mere entertainment. Few American writers of this century had a better feel for the language than did Raymond Chandler, yet Chandler wrote only detective novels.
And Chandler, who popularized 1940s Los Angeles as a playground of crime, was far from the first to use his skills in a form that was smirked at by the literary establishment.
“The way it was introduced to me at the beginning of my writing career was that you were either on the high road or the low road and you can’t simultaneously be on both,” Hall says. “But then you look around and see some of the great, successful writers of the past were on both. I mean, people like Twain or Dickens, writers who seem to be writing a type of book that was genre for their time - a kid’s book in Twain’s case.”
That “kid’s book,” of course, was “Huckleberry Finn,” one of the landmarks of American fiction. In it, Twain managed to remark about the evils of slavery, racial and territorial intolerance, child abuse, alcohol abuse and more. While Hall isn’t Twain, nevertheless he refuses to believe that genre fiction isn’t serious work.
“In fact,” he says, “I would go so far as to say that I think you can accomplish more in a crime story than is being accomplished generally in mainstream fiction these days.
That they’re (crime novels) capable of and regularly are taking on bigger subjects and characters of a wider range and scope.”
Again, Hall’s own work is a good example of philosophy in action. His novels typically bemoan the rape of Florida’s environment by unscrupulous speculators. His latest, “Gone Wild,” involves the smuggling of rare animals to satisfy the lust of private collectors.
Yet the books are more than mere diatribes. They are worked-out, well-crafted novels that feature complex characters - the good and the bad - roaming the landscape that Hall loves best. The issues are just one way to explore those people and that landscape.
“I see it more as a love of place than actually a set of ideas about the place or about ecology in general,” he says. “I just love Florida. I love the way the air feels and the way the sun is and the way the light is. You name it and I like it.”
Hall’s books betray that affection and, in the process, they betray two stereotypes: of Florida being uninhabitable and of detective fiction being unworthy of serious study. They do so with style, with intelligence and with a philosophical base that any person sensitive to the world we live in should sympathize with.
What is that if not serious? “My goal is to have everything,” he says. “Why not?”
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