Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Last Resort, by Alison Lurie

I bought this book last spring at a bookstore in Key West--a lovely small bookstore the likes of which cannot be sustained by any normal American town. But being located a half block off Duval Street means that thousands of pedestrians pass by every week and also that the real estate prices are too high for Borders to even think about staking out the necessary square footage to establish one of their cookie-cutter superstores, so there it is, the Key West Island Bookstore, at 513 Fleming Street.

It's no secret I am a book snob, and I don't usually read "beach books"--my feeling is, that's why there are magazines. But I was in a light reading mood, looking over the pile of books in the "Key West section" of the store, and Alison Lurie is a Pulitzer Prize winner (albeit one I was unfamiliar with) so I picked up The Last Resort.

Lurie's tale of a New England professor and his wife who relocate to Key West in hopes of ameliorating their lives turned out to be the kind of book I usually don't read, but it was enjoyable anyway. Key West is its own reality and it is hopeless to try to convey its essence. If you are not there, you won't understand, and if you are there, you don't need anybody to describe it to you. Nevertheless, Lurie, who has been a part-time Key West resident for many years, makes a brave effort at describing the kind of disconnect people experience when they arrive on the island and establish residence.

I like this passage, that deals with the bright yellow multicar tram that tours the island, the Conch Tour Train.

Molly...had never been on the train, though it passed her house continually. The day she and her husband first moved in, the loudspeaker had called the tourists' attention to a large tropical tree with loose, flaky bark that grew in their side yard. "On your left, just ahead, you will see a fine specimen of one of Key West's native trees. It is a gumbo limbo, but natives call it the tourist tree, because it is always red and peeling."

The first time Molly and her husband heard this joke they laughed. They heard it again soon afterward, and then at regular intervals until sunset. It did no good to shut the windows; the loudspeaker was clearly audible through the uninsulated walls of the house. Polite calls to the Conch Train office over the next few weeks accomplished nothing; the woman who answered the phone appeared to think that Molly should feel honored to have her tree noticed.

After hearing the joke approximately every twenty minutes for two weeks, Molly and her husband discussed having the tree removed. But it turned out that the gumbo limbo was a protected species; any tree service that destroyed it would lose its license and be liable for heavy damages, as would the Hopkinses. An acquaintance suggested pouring bleach into the roots, but the gumbo limbo appeared to like bleach.

Finally, after getting permission from the Historical Prservation Society (a lengthy process), Molly and her husband put up a fence which cut off their view and darkened the yard, but concealed the trunk of the tree. On one memorable day at the end of the season, the Conch Train passed in silence.

Now, that is funny, and it does express the typical reaction a northerner would have in that situation. But here's the problem: if you have that reaction, you don't belong in Key West. You will have to change or leave. These characters have a small victory over the island but they will lose the war. You can be whoever you want to be in Key West but you can't change the culture. I remember the apartment I lived in for two and a half years where the Conch Train was always saying, "...Key West was discovered in 1544 by Ponce de Leon..." [According to more reliable sources, the date was 1513, but this is something else you can't get worked up about: in Key West, people make up stories. Get over it.] I loved having the Conch Train going by--I liked waving to the tourists and smiling at them.

The Last Resort is an uncomplicated book with mostly two-dimensional characters. The plot is a straight line. The writing is skillful and the setting is suitably exotic. It's a perfect "beach read"--if you like that sort of thing.


yellojkt said...

That is a very funny passage. I think Key West residents have to consider themselves unpaid "cast members". If you can't play the role, don't join the game.

Read/Think/Live said...

...As my husband likes to say, "Life As Performance Art!"