Book Review
Sunday, May 12, 2013
Tropical Quests:' Rise and Fall of Swinging Key West

By Reviewed by Terry Schmida

"Tropical Quests: A Key West Novel" by Wesley Sizemore

Two Harbors Press, $19.99

The late Key West mayor and all-around rapscallion Capt. Tony Tarracino once told me that he pegged modern Key West's high-water mark at around 1978 or so.

In those uber-bachanalian -- and cheap -- days of sexual smorgasbord on the rock, ordinary workers such as bartenders and cabbies could afford an Old Town home and still enjoy a quirky quality of life second to nowhere else in the country and even the world, without working three jobs each and ultimately living out a dream of what once was.

The lost Key West that used to be and what it would eventually become are the backdrops for long-time islander Wesley Sizemore's largely autobiographical "Tropical Quests: A Key West Novel," released earlier this year.

Sizemore's free-thinking, intellectual first-person character John Cottrell is 30-ish and haunted by the Vietnam War, which, in his early twenties, he sits out when it gets in the way of his academic ambitions.

Born of extremely humble origins, Cottrell flees the country, first for delightfully bohemian Paris and then Canada, with its official government sympathy toward 'Nam dodgers and resisters.

During his years as a college professor in Toronto, Sizemore/Cottrell systematically sneaks into the States for photo ops in front of prominent American landmarks such as the U.S. Capitol and the Hoover Building. Pictures are sneeringly sent to the draft office and authorities are understandably pissed off and motivated to catch our boy.

It's during one of these many illicit stateside trips -- with a sexy older woman -- that Cottrell discovers remote, obscure Key West and vows to someday return.

Finally there's political amnesty and a new kind of sanctuary is sought in Cayo Hueso, circa 1976, where the electricity doesn't always work but the living is easy, colorful and filled with camaraderie and community.

Across the country, disillusioned urban ex-hippies, activists and others had been drifting from cities to smaller, more livable locales, some even going the commune route. Beautiful and affordable, morally loose but vibrant and fun, the Keys were a no-brainer destination for many baby boomers in the '70s.

On his second night as a Key Wester, Cottrell attends an art show and ends up on the kind of strange but endearing nocturnal adventure most of us take part in sooner or later, his with fast friends Leigh Dickinson and Thomas Szuter.

Thus begins the development of two deep relationships, one of which will blossom and grow while the other is destined to climax in a tragic twist.

With his new gay business partner and friend Doug Arnold and adopted son "young" Tom, Cottrell settles down to a domestic life that's far from ordinary but worth defending nonetheless.

In the Key West of Cottrell's prime, broken souls help each other to heal. Strangers adopt grown men as sons. Gays and straights alike mix easily at infamous clubs such as The Monster and the Full Moon ("Full Spoon") Saloon and the authorities even keep the lights on and the buses running (more or less) on time.

Seems too good to be true and that, in fact, turns out to be the case. Reaganism unfolds, as do the unwanted consequences of increased inequality. The effects of mass tourism and the real-estate boom of the 1980s are also amplified and exacerbated.

The battered, paint-peeling Conch dwellings that first caught Cottrell's jaundiced eye as "weathered, sagging, like old people on a park bench waiting for someone to tell their wonderful stories to," become representative of a now out-of-reach dream.

Time goes by and development is coroneted. Protests against it are drowned out. Rows of condos are built along South Roosevelt Boulevard, cruise ships grow ever larger, kicking up bigger and bigger plumes of silt.

Eventually, a fictitious intrigue involving crooked development and a sex scandal involving an old Conch family force Cottrell himself to get lost in Costa Rica -- another cultural touchstone for shady Keys smugglers of a certain age. There he contemplates his future.

Key West is home, but it has morphed into a more exclusive beast.

The Cottrell tribe must decide whether to stay or go.

'Life Is Short: Read Short Stories" by Christina Oxenberg (www., $22)

This new book of stories by the Key West author of "Royal Blue"-- she's the daughter of a Serbian princess -- includes a photo section by Patrick McMullan. This is what the author herself says of her collection: "A pleasure to put together as it required me to spend hours trawling Duval Street for material. Thankfully, supply easily outweighs demand and there's always another good story to find if you're just willing to merge with the masses and take note. Anyone with a tiny attention span should feel unthreatened by my extremely short stories. The painting on the cover is by the late British innovator Jonathan Routh, one of the founders of Candid Camera, from a series he made called Queen Victoria's Secret Jamaican Holiday." Available at Key West Island Bookstore on Fleming Street or at the publisher website above.

-- Mark Howell.