By Mark Howell
The big book of 2013, just published by Knopf, is "American Tropic" by Thomas Sanchez, a resident of Key West, San Francisco and Paris.
"American Tropic," the latest work by the author of the classic "Mile Zero," first came to the attention of Solares Hill readers in September, when our On the Bookshelf column, which has recently been reprinted by Knopf's publicity department, quoted a rant by a pirate radio shock-jock broadcasting from a boat anchored offshore of Key West: "Let's talk about the Powerboat Championship Race starting from Key West Harbor this morning -- Those boats burn enough fuel in one race to fly a jumbo jet across the Atlantic!"
Thomas Sanchez has confirmed for us that this new novel, "American Tropic" is going to be "a controversial fight -- It's about the degradation of the reef from global warming, degradation from cruise ships, mass tourism, overfishing, etcetera." Its main character is a "black lesbian cop with a partner and family, so I will be attacked by red-neck and red-state culture mongrels."
Sanchez's last novel, "King Bongo," appeared 10 years ago and it has been decades since his much beloved "Mile Zero" was hailed by the Washington Post as a "holy terror of a book" and by Vanity Fair as "myth-making and magisterial." Now Sanchez has turned a new corner with a novel already greeted by Philip Caputo as "a bold book of wild truth and poetry, destined to become a classic of environmental literature."
"American Tropic" finds the "exotic city of Key West" terrorized by a series of horrible murders. The victims have one thing in common: a reckless disregard for the natural world. Someone is literally killing the people who are killing the environment.
Rapacious developers and ruthless scammers have awoken some kind of beast off Key West, a skeleton-clad voodoo assassin and executioner. Both the destroyers of marine life as well as the defenders of America's only continental reef are all swept up in a torrent of horrors, with everyone dreading being the killer's next victim. At the end of hurricane season is a final and dramatic explosion of fear and rage.
The array of characters in "American Tropic" include a radio shock-jock, Noah Sax, aboard the trawler Noah's Lark ("Dial Five-Five-C-O-N-C-H: Show me the rage!") plus a soon-to-die powerboat racer, Randy Dandy, and also Luz Zamora, a homicide detective and dedicated mother.
Says Booklist: "Sanchez has an arresting voice and his own anger at the depredations of greedy developers and ignorant tourists infuses every page."
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When "Mile Zero" was published in October, 1989, Solares Hill vice president Frank Taylor wanted the perfect person to bless it for the paper. His dear friend, the poet James Merrill, for example, loved the book. Many people wanted to review it for us but finally Frank gave it to Sir Philip Burton, foster father of Richard Burton. That was "astonishing," recalls Sanchez all these years later, "because I don't think there were many fiction reviews written by that legendary man, especially about a novel set in the town that he passionately loved and famously lived in."
This week Sanchez has returned the honor by granting Solares Hill an exclusive interview, the first in the nation about the newly arrived classic, "American Tropic."
Deep background: Thomas Sanchez is a descendant of cattlemen dating back four generations in California to the 19th-century Gold Rush. He was born days after his father was killed at the age of 21 in the Battle of Tarawa during World War II. He's been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and is a Chevalier of France's Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He is also the director of a documentary on the life of Jack Garfein, an Actors Studio legend and the survivor of 11 concentration camps.
Solares Hill: Was there a particular event or idea that was the genesis of "American Tropic?"
Thomas Sanchez: A very singular idea broke into my subconscious and became a storm swirling in my mind not unlike the eye of a hurricane -- the idea that someone was pushed over the edge of sanity by the desecration of the environment and decided to bring those to justice who do not obey the laws of Nature. As the novel's lead detective, Luz Zamora, states, "We are dealing with a self-appointed ecoterrorist, killing those he thinks are responsible for killing the environment."
Solares Hill: In this new novel, you revisit the setting of your 1989 book, "Mile Zero." What made you return to the Florida Keys and what's it like to be back?
Thomas Sanchez: "Mile Zero" was written when I lived in Key West during the decade of the 1980s, the town was still a fishing port and clung to its seafaring traditions. The island also seemed cut off from mainland mores, a rough and tumble place, dangerous. It was like Dodge City in the Gulf Stream, where a piratical code held sway. Now, a generation later, the island has lost much of its swagger, it's become a place where cruise ships disgorge multitudes, where humble cigar-makers' shacks have been tarted up and sold for millions, where down-on-their-luck writers and artists can never afford a sliver of paradise. The real outlaws remaining today are those fighting to save the natural habitat of the Keys, those who stand up against polluting degradation and corrosive consumerism. There are still a few of those independent spirits spooking around and that is reason enough to buy a ticket to the circus.
Solares Hill: How do you see "American Tropic" as connected to "Mile Zero" in ways other than location?
Thomas Sanchez: The Key West of "Mile Zero" is like a cosmic "Cannery Row," the end of the American road and the beginning of a new American dream, exploding with possibility. The reality of "American Tropic" plays out in a totally different time of diminishing dreams and receding expectations. But it is a time that must be seized, reinvented, because it is not simply about the dictum, adapt or die, it's about anticipating a future that can be wielded for propulsive change rather than just a dying bleat of lost hope.
Solares Hill: How did you come up with the idea that Key West is being terrorized by an assassin, a self appointed ecoterrorist who's killing people who are killing the environment?
Thomas Sanchez: My first novel, "Rabbit Boss," was about an Indian tribe that bore witness to 100 years of California's landscape being cannibalized for its timber, water, minerals and open spaces. From that first novel to this most recent novel, the environment is always a main player. In my novels, place is a ticking heart with a soul. In "American Tropic" the ticking heart of the ecological soul is threatened with annihilation and, in the time honored American mythos of the vigilante, action is taken and the chips of consequence rain down.
Solares Hill: This novel is a page turner that confronts big issues -- the destruction of marine life, the dying off of the reef, the pillaging of land for commercial development. How involved are you personally with environmental issues?
Thomas Sanchez: My involvement is that I took 10 years out of my life to animate these environmental issues within the dramatic context of "American Tropic." My first encounter with ocean desecration was as a boy on the Monterey Bay, where I witnessed the aftermath of the overfishing of sardines that resulted in the stripping of an entire life cycle of fish from existence. Years later, in Florida, I experienced echoes of that from the results of industrial dragnet fishing, the tragic diminishing of sea turtles, the Deepwater Horizon oil blow-out that catastrophically contributed to a hypoxic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico larger than the state of New Jersey. I could go on and on with this litany of devastation -- and that was the great challenge while writing the novel, why it took 10 years to accomplish. I had to steep myself in applicable scientific research to find a middle voice of authorial reason that would open eyes to the fact that little time is left if we're to salvage what's left of our marine ecosystem and the Earth itself. I know this is an old saw but it's a saw that cuts across our daily reality with profound consequence.
Solares Hill: Who or what inspired the pirate radio shock-jock character, Noah Sax, a disbarred environmental lawyer? And the homicide detective, Luz Zamora, a woman who lives in domestic balance with her two daughters and female partner?
Thomas Sanchez: Luz first, the Cuban American cop, because she's really cut from the coral rock of the island. Her family roots go back to the earliest immigrants from Cuba seeking refuge from the plunder of a vicious colonial world -- but she refuses to be a slave to custom in her personal and professional life. Luz alone is the shadow-seeker between black and white, in fact, she is half white and half black. Her reality is the contrary of the shock-jock, Noah Sax. There is no philosophical pull with Noah, he's beyond tropes and symbols, is in constant battle with himself and the world. Noah's radio rant against what he deems the murder of the environment is, "Show me the rage!"
Solares Hill: His boat is called Noah's Lark. Do you see him as a modern day version of the biblical Noah?
Thomas Sanchez: The novel's Noah is a variation on a biblical theme, he's the one who's in tune with the rhythms of nature, who can intuit our maker's grand plan, or at least that plan's inevitable outcome. Noah knows that the natural world around him is being destroyed and he must try and save what's left. His only weapons are his language of rage, his passionate will to sacrifice himself for the cause and his logic of scientific fact.
Solares Hill: Several characters in your novel sense a sort of apocalypse coming, from the fearful people who call into Noah's radio program to Hogfish, who bikes the streets warning of the hurricane (El Finito) about to destroy the world. Why did you want this air of impending doom?
Thomas Sanchez: Because anyone who can hear thunder and see lightning knows impending doom hangs over us like a nuclear cloud in the shape of a question mark. We not only have the weapons of mass destruction in the hands of righteous hacks, religious fanatics and racist quacks, we have the profiteer-polluters and destroyers of the natural world whacking off what precious little is left of earth's pure air, water and soil. As Noah himself learns the hard way in the novel, rage alone cannot be the answer. Again, it is how to make that rage into a transformative power for positive change. Therein lies the challenge if we are to survive.
Solares Hill: Many people in Key West say they know the inspirations for characters in "Mile Zero," Do you think the same thing will happen with "American Tropic?"
Thomas Sanchez: Both novels are fictions, created solely from my own imagination. They were never intended to portray particular people or exact events but to create from the mist of mythos flesh and blood. But! The muse of both novels is the end of the American road at mile zero. As Noah Sax proclaims in the novel, " Nowhere to go from here except to swim with sharks and barracuda. Nowhere does the bell of accountability ring out so loudly as here in the Florida Keys."