Miami Twice

Edward Said

  • Going to Miami: Exiles, Tourists and Refugees in the New America by David Rieff
    Bloomsbury, 230 pp, £12.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 7475 0064 9
  • Miami by Joan Didion
    Simon and Schuster, 224 pp, $17.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 671 64664 8

Despite the media’s unending stream of patriotic talk about ‘America’, one occasionally has a sense of the country’s disunity, its unmanageable extremes, the foreignness of some of its parts to other parts. Riding the Broadway bus recently, I was struck by the driver’s almost beatific reaction to a passenger’s rudeness to him. Instead of screaming back at the offending person, he smiled gently, saying with an air of contentment: ‘Scream all you like. That’s OK. In California they don’t just argue – they shoot each other.’ He was referring to the spate of freeway incidents near Los Angeles, in which impatient or stalled commuters picked each other off with rifles and handguns in the midst of the vast traffic jams.

Suddenly one realised again that California and New York were not, in fact, two States in a comfortable union, but countries like, say, Britain and Bulgaria co-existing somehow on the same continent. There is, as every traveller to America has said, a stratum of monotonous sameness in the country, of regimented, mass-produced uniformity, of a pervasive unchanging pallidness that one associates with the Middle West or the Plains, which communicates the tremendous loneliness and anonymity to be found in American life. Yet it is no less true that the New America is a great deal less provincial and regimented. Much of this is due to the emergence of a counter-culture of the Left and of the Right in the Sixties, a mass counterculture whose affiliation with non-American currents of thought, habits of life – styles of radical will, in Susan Sontag’s phrase – have continued well past that now excoriated decade. But a great deal of the change in the country has to do with re-configurations in demography and economic power.

Regional characteristics, once as stable and as predictable as any stubborn cultural stereotype, are now bewilderingly volatile. The Sun Belt with Texas at its heart, formerly booming, enterprising, extravagant, is in a deep slump. New England has never been more prosperous. The Middle West, with its farms and its grain and commodity exchanges, has receded in importance as the financial and service centres, in New York and California, rise and fall with Gatsby-like flair. Those frightening actualities of foreign provenance – trade deficits, Aids, terrorism, Soviet evil, immigrants – have recently overtaken the society as a whole, reduced its distance from the rest of the world, made it less impervious to sudden changes or catastrophes: Ronald Reagan’s SDI-fixation is, I think, partly to be understood as a placebo for these overseas ills, a defence to end all defences.

Not the least of the changes have been the demographic ones, as caused by immigration, itself often, but not always, a function of American overseas intervention. The principal fact is that there is now a precarious balance in American society between the so-called melting-pot, with all its ideological, economic and social appurtenances, and the disruptive flooding into the pot of new arrivals from abroad whose purpose, it seems, is to find prosperity and to form a functioning national and economic unit within America. In New York City, for example, most of the fruit and vegetable shops are Korean, the news-stands Indian or Pakistani, hot-dog carts and small luncheonettes Greek, street pedlars Senegalese; a large population of Dominicans, Haitians, Ecuadorans and Jamaicans have made inroads into proletarian domains once populated by Blacks and Puerto Ricans, just as Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese children play the role once reserved for bright, upwardly-mobile and professionally-inclined Eastern European Jews.

Nowhere is the same pattern more dramatic than in Miami, a great resort and retirement capital for the Northeast, now – as David Rieff puts it in Going to Miami – a mirror city to Havana. There have been no less than five recent books on Miami, of which those by Rieff and Joan Didion,[*] quite different in tone and treatment, are the most prominent. Miami has also become crucial to the whole Central American drama, whether because it is where the Contras are headquartered, or because the drug and intelligence traffic has found it a convenient on-shore location. In any case, Miami is hardly an American city any more, so dominant are the Cuban exiles, so loosely attached is South Florida to the mainland.

Rieff’s is the gentler, the more forgiving, of the two books. Miami for him is a genuinely interesting place in which illusions and media images (those from the television series Miami Vice, for example) have gradually taken over the city, along with the Cuban and other Latin American exiles. Since there is no real literature about Miami, Rieff relies for background on his impressions and on the city’s easily perceived history of hucksterism, violence, and massive architectural schemes, for his evocation of a place still in the process of being made and re-made. But this, he says, is an American phenomenon. ‘All of America seems more and more theatrical: everyone is posing as someone, and, with the Walkman, providing their own soundtrack. The fantasy counts for more and more.’

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[*] Joan Didion’s Miami will be published here by Weidenfeld 18 February.