One Hippopotamus and Magpies

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Lynne Barrett’s story collection, Magpies, soaks in the muggy atmosphere of South Florida, with her well-told stories of swamplands and housing developments.

What is it about fiction set in Florida that is so tantalizing? Is it the third world sense of a tropical jungle teeming at the edge of a civilization whose perpetual summer and true multi-ethnicity seems to attract the disenfranchised, the burn-outs from the rest of the 49 states who are chasing warmth and oblivion? Is it the concentration of crime and political corruption? Whatever it might be, Florida seems to have attracted our best writers: Ernest Hemingway, Russell Banks, Carl Hiasaen, John Katzenbach and most recently Lynne Barrett, who has just published a fine collection of short fiction including one masterful near-novella-length work that packs more punch than many novels I’ve recently read.

Barrett’s is a South Florida of Moorish shopping malls, housing developments built up from swampland, nightclubs that attract a hard-core populace who subsist on glossy and gossipy magazines, and moldering Art Deco buildings inhabited by elderly, once glamorous women, who die alone and forgotten. Even in the most urban of Barrett’s stories, the landscape is “full of buzzes and croaks of unseen creatures.” One would think that generally warm weather would be less of an intrusion upon lifestyle. The climate, in fact, is a breeding ground for menacing hurricanes and epic electrical storms capable of wreaking havoc and destruction on an annual timetable.

“I picture us as the radar sweeps by, showing our cool blue shoulders and hot crotches, unmistakably new lovers,” thinks Jenny in the story “One Hippopotamus” as she lies in bed with Carlos. She is speaking of a thunderstorm whose volatility, the ability to cripple a power grid, creates the atmosphere for an important revelation Carlos makes that frames the budding relationship.

Carlos, who grew up in Florida, is originally Chilean; Jenny is an Anglo. They present an example of how the Latino and Caucasian cultures can come together and forge erotic alliances whose mysterious element of sympathy is born from the very differences between them. The pair reappears as a married couple with a child in “Cave of the Winds,” a story about a group of neighbors who rent an industrial space to flee to in case a passing hurricane threatens their homes closer to the water.

Carlos and Jen’s relationship has now ripened into an edgier alliance worn by the passing of time. They chafe at one another over Carlos’ insistence on spending nights alone in the warehouse cave he has created to house them in an emergency. Jen even suspects he might be having an affair and finds her husband disarmingly pleased at her suspicion. And yet, raised by an aunt who taught him to fear natural disasters, Carlos is concerned at Jen’s lack of concern for extreme weather: “…he thought about how she seemed immune, not feeling the immensity of the world’s powers as he did.”

Barrett showcases the “unfathomable, bizarre” power of the natural world in “When, He Wondered.”  Tom, who “understood the unreliability of the landscape, the karst topography of Florida, how the ground water, slightly acidic, dissolved the calcite in the limestone as it worked its way through, creating voids,” is not surprised when part of the subdivision of housing he is developing with his partner, Wick, begins to sink into a widening cavity. “It was an act of Florida nature….TV helicopters hovered as the sinkhole swallowed the foundations for half a dozen executive homes.” Tom, who is having an affair with Wick’s wife, willingly agrees to become an accessory in a scheme in which Wick will fake his own death, assume a new identity and flee Florida for an undisclosed destination where he will then collect money he’s funneled into an offshore bank account. The carefully orchestrated plan descends into disaster as this very delicately wrought tale twists and turns on itself with high level of narrative tension.

Sentence for sentence, Barrett is a superb writer. Her work brims with original ideas, questions and philosophical musings, the product of a probing intelligence and a highly literate sensibility. But what separates her from many contemporary short fiction writers is her consummate story-telling ability. Whereas some will take an idea and fashion a work notable for a sonority of language and mood, Barrett takes a more traditional and ultimately more satisfying approach of composing a tale with a beginning, middle and an end. The author teaches narrative writing at Florida International University in Miami, and her expertise is flagrantly on display in her stories.

Equally admirable but more complex is the collection’s longest entry, “The Noir Boudoir,” a hard-boiled dark tale reminiscent of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler, which gives ground to the less visible sorts of characters who colorfully inhabit the Miami landscape. Written from the point of view of Ray, a retired detective who deals in second-hand books, magazine, letters and photos and who calls himself and his associates “Magpies,” the story showcases a group of small-time antique dealers, each with different areas of interest who buy and sell to support their compulsion to collect; they are one step up from hoarders, Ray tells us. A group of them arrive at a Deco building: “twelve stories of curves and niches to break up the wind and survive a hurricane” to pick over the effects of a dead woman named Helena Dorsett, who, according to a photograph of her that remains in the apartment, was glamorous in her youth, vaguely familiar-looking so that Ray wonders if she might have been a minor movie star. One character exclaims, “‘the noir boudoir.’ And so it is.” You get the sense that such faded glamour is to be found everywhere in South Florida, and because we’re in Barrett’s Florida, there is a good chance there will be a diabolical back story to this woman’s life, which begins to unravel when one of the antique collectors finds her home ransacked for items that once belonged to Helena Dorsett. With patience and confidence, Ray, the old pro, slowly untangles the mystery behind the theft and Dorsett’s death. The revelation of what happened to her and the men who loved her is at once surprising, powerful, and satisfying.

This is a rich, fascinating world mined with remarkable skill and empathy and most admirably, humor. Barrett’s stories call to mind other writers: in their gritty realism, Russell Banks; in their lyrical and narrative precision, John Katzenbach. But Barrett has struck out into her own territory.

Joseph Olshan is the author of Nightswimmer. More from this author →