Tuesday, December 26, 2006

very locals

....He also watched people walk on Lincoln Road, past the cafe. He could distinguish the Europeans from the South Americans and the Americans. The French traveled in pairs, usually couples, burnt from too much sun. The English came in small groups of pale and rowdy young men. The South Americans spoke softly and examined the menu carefully. The locals were easy to spot too. They left the best tips. Then there were what he called the very locals, the beautiful young people who lived on South Beach. They were tanned and fit and wore few clothes. They always had their cell phones out, talking into them or thumbing messages. There were others too--performers, pamphleteers, a man who sang the 1958 hit "Volare" in different keys, a juggler, and a one-armed crazy....

- from "Nothing" by Gonzalo Barr, The Last Flight of Jose Luis Balboa, p. 95
Gonzalo Barr writes stories that make the familiar seem strange, and the strange familiar. I read them this weekend in a state of astonished discovery, recognizing so many people I've watched or walked past on Lincoln Road. Like the bar manager in the story "Nothing", trying to please his customers, keep the orders coming, and fend off the crazies. I'd never thought much about who he was, what his life might be like - I would just walk past, cringing at those expensive drink prices. Reading Barr makes me regret how lazy my imagination has been, how little I bothered to wonder about all these people and their stories.

I think that like that bar manager, I tend to classify people quickly - tourist, local, sunburnt French couple - and then promptly forget about them. Partly it's a function of the volume of people around to see, and their willingness to be categorized. I'm not sure if I'm a proper South Beach local - I'm certainly not one of those 'very locals' with their cell phones and few clothes! Reading about this bar manager, Roig, certainly might lead me to tip him better, if only in sympathy for all he has to put up with. So local or not, Barr's stories brought me into the inner lives of people in Miami, which in composite could represent the inner life of the place itself.

In a NY Times review of another book I read recently, Dave Eggers' "What is the What", Francine Prose writes,
The liberties and devices of fiction (dialogue, voice, characterization and so forth) enable the writer to take us into the mind and heart of a person not unlike ourselves who talks to us from a distant period and place, and so becomes our guide to its sights and sounds, its sorrows and satisfactions.
I think it's a very good observation, and an explanation for the paradoxical way that fiction can be truer than memoir or non-fiction. Prose's description is just as relevant for a book set in one's own city and time, though - it seems to me that the great boundaries between people today are often not time or place but indifference and failure of imagination. When we can't fully understand or sympathize with our own neighbors, it's difficult to do so for Palestinian or Sudanese people. Still, I think great stories like Barr's can be a cure for indifference, and a way of entering into others' lives without harrassing or annoying them.

Gonzalo Barr appears today on WLRN's "Topical Currents".

1 comment:

Joe Lewis said...

I read Ben Zander's book and it was just like going back to NEC...