Book Review
Sunday, September 30, 2012
'Key West Tales': Fun, Sun and a Masterpiece

"Key West Tales"

by John Hersey

Knopf, $15

John ("Hiroshima") Hersey died in 1993 at the age of 78 in the Key West compound that he and his wife Barbara shared with his friend, Ralph ("Invisible Man") Ellison. Barbara, John's second wife, was the former wife of Charles Addams and the model for Morticia Addams. Barbara died on Martha's Vineyard in 2007. Back in 1994, Barbara wrote to Mark Howell on the first publication of this review of "Key West Stories:" "I very much enjoyed your piece about my husband John. You seemed to get the essence of the man, with an understanding of his book that was great. How he managed such a feat while ill still fills me with wonder. Thank you for your good words.")

Here is the review's second printing:

With the unsparing candor of a boy who fails to see the Emperor's new clothes, Hersey, as if in a second childhood just before his death, strips away our local history's lies by telling us what he sees. "Key West Tales" was his last book and this is what he found, and chose to quote from, in Dr. Strobel's diary about Audubon's visit to the island:

May 7. Rowing around the brow of an island thick with a wild hair of mangroves, we suddenly came, at the leeward side, on a vast number of our most familiar creatures -- ungainly brown pelicans -- perched all together in a harmony of satiation, looking like a retreat of complaisant elderly preachers. How peaceful their ruminations were! - until our heathen infantry suddenly fired its repeated salvos. At once the water around us was crowded with the dead, the dying and the maimed, while others flocked away screaming over the sea. "Did you ever see such a sport?" says Preston?" "It's a joy," says Audubon. "Out with your knives, boys!" We bagged 28 skins.

Now there's a naturalist you don't want to meet in an alley off Whitehead Street on a dark night.

The historical tales in this collection are set in italics and alternate with the contemporary stories. The historical pieces are shorter and vibrate with images that, typical of Hersey, you will not find in the schoolbooks of history class. Stuck in my mind's eye is Hersey's report on the Indian Key massacre:

Just before dawn, the Indians found Captain Mott, his wife and two children and his mother-in-law hiding in a shed behind their house. The captors shot the grandmother, strangled the baby and threw it into the sea, seized the older daughter, a four-year-old, and bashed her brains out on a porch pillar. Finding Mott and his wife still alive, the attackers beat them to death with clubs and set their clothes and hair on fire. The next day, only one house remained standing, that of Mr. Charles Howe, who was a Freemason. After the raid, survivors discovered that the Indians had found Mr. Howe's Masonic apron, with its mystical pyramid and the all-seeing eye, and they had carefully spread it out on the kitchen table, no doubt in awe and fear, and had skulked away.

John Hersey's contemporary tales hit an awesome note, too. In "Consuela Castanon," a sad but not hopeless story, he describes with geographic and hermeneutical accuracy the horizontally challenged Consuela, she of the "stupendous legs and enormous buttocks," a goddess of plenty who likes to walk to work all the way "over Von Phister to Reynolds, up to United, across to Whitehead because it's a good stroll, a bonfire of calories."

Ablaze with Duval Street realism is "Fantasy Fest," in which a young man decides that our Halloween parade would be the proper place to get reunited with the mother who gave him up for adoption when he was an infant. She does turn up but has no idea who he is, so there's plenty of dramatic tension: "Here was a half-naked skinhead with an Iroquois topknot who shouted 'Hi, Mom!' and chucked her under her chin, then reeled away laughing." Well, that wasn't him. (She does eventually find the boy, but I won't spoil it for you.)

Dramatic tension was John Hersey's forte throughout his years producing 24 extraordinary books -- and there's a ton of it in this collection. And one of the stories, "Get Up, Sweet Slug-a-bed," is simply one of the masterpieces of his career.

It is an evocation of the life and dying of a gay professor "who stored up his bulk oats" for Key West. Taking up one-third of the book, this story is about music, fidelity, saintliness, Fausto's, Cobo's Pharmacy and the local cops.

I still can't get over it. And I defy anyone, of whatever gender or inclination, to read the final three paragraphs without moist eyes and an aching heart.

The story has a complicated construction with multiple characters (the principal one is modeled on a real-life resident named Jim Boatwright whose caretakers were hired by the real-life Frank Taylor). It's held together by Hersey's trademark fly-on-the-wall technique.

Everyone in the story is a bitch of one sort or another, except for the wonderful Hospice women, volunteers "in their 50s, all with grown children, graying, quiet, gentle and in every stroke of the hands and look of the eyes therapeutic with brave and unforced tenderness."

Hersey's descriptions of the main character's life here, "his goat legs dancing every damn day and night," his G-string-clad parades up and down Dick Dock at Higgs Beach, are as graphic as anything by John Rechy until it wrenches, inevitably, toward the arrival of AIDS and the character becomes "a nightshade, poisonous at the root."

But the headaches, the nausea, the diapers, the slow glide down the final slope as the disease "won its skirmishes under the skin and found a path to the brain" are not horrible because it is denial that is horrible.

It takes an artist, a great one, to tell this with honesty and grace and Hersey does so, in manifold and merciful ways.

Please read this book.