“Key West Sketches: Writers at Mile Zero” edited by Carey Winfrey

Key West Sketches: Writers at Mile Zero (Blair 2023), edited by Carey Winfrey, is an engaging, well written collection of short stories, poetry, and fiction by some well-known writers as well as lesser known but still outstanding ones—all with connections to Key West. Even though there are some familiar names, some materials in this anthology have not been published before. Eclectic, varied, and genre-crossing, the pieces are divided into two sections entitled “Island Fever” and “Absent Friends.” One does not have to be a Key West fan to enjoy these pieces as they touch upon the human condition and themes of universal concerns. However, an interest in Key West or Florida in general would be a bonus as these selections are lush with the sights, sounds, tastes, and vistas of this unique and treasured place.

Of course, the topics of Key West and writers would seem to elicit images of Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams among draping palm fronds, drinks in hand. Yet the dominant protagonist in this collection is Key West itself. The pieces in this collection trace Key West’s long history including its role as the South’s most vibrant writers’ colony, with tributes to its best-known authors and poets. With contributions from Judy Blume, Meg Cabot, Billy Collins, James Merrill, Lee Smith, and many more, these are essays and poems that ring with biting truths and often a certain sense of eulogy.

An almost mythical place, Key West fell victim to its own popularity, as many of the authors in this book note with sorrow. The Key West of Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and Elizabeth Bishop is long gone now, given over to tourists and aggressive development. One prominent theme that runs through the whole anthology is that Key West has changed so much that many of the artists and writers who were once happy there have left. Such changes—traffic, tourism, over-development, rising crime, damage to the fragile environment, a loss of the sense of “real” Florida, and a crowding out of old-time Floridians—are epidemic to coastal Florida. Yet, as made abundantly clear in these pieces, Key West suffers most gravely from these matters, especially given its limited size and its particularly fragile ecology. The Florida Keys, after all, are built upon the bones of coral reefs and sand bars.

Philip Caputo in his essay “Paradise Lost” says it vividly—and with more than a touch of despair. Caputo lived in Key West for twelve years, where he raised two children, before he left in 1988. As a year-round resident and not a snowbird, Caputo endured “the long, broiling summers when, during hurricane season, each dawn brought with its glory the chance of catastrophe.” He writes that once Key West was magic with “the power to quicken the blood and stir the soul. …a tropical wilderness where mangrove islands shimmered in silver seas so clear you could drop a dime ten feet down and tell if it landed heads or tail.” Now, however, as to all the keys and Key West, “[g]reed and stupidity are killing them.”

The “grotesques” of time-share condos, fast food franchises, tourist traps, and the like “were more than eyesores. They were acts of vandalism against the beauty of sea, sky, and island. To which finally Caputo acknowledges that “Watching a beloved place die evokes the same emotions as watching a loved one die: grief as well as rage.”

While Key West remains the main character, writers themselves or writers writing about other writers are also key subjects, with perhaps not surprisingly, Hemingway dominating. There is nothing in this collection written by Ernest Hemingway—surely the most famous of Key West writers. However, he is featured in the collection in such essays as “Hemingway’s Key West” by Joy Williams. In the essay, which sums up some well-known facts as well as lesser-known ones, Williams includes some choice bits, such as “Hemingway also once used the poet Wallace Stevens as a punching bag in Key West. Wallace’s crime—remarking that Hemingway’s writing was not his ‘cup of tea.’”

“Farther Out” by Paul Hendrickson also deals with Hemingway—or perhaps more accurately Hemingway’s boat. Hendrickson describes that boat in this way: “Like the sentences that made [Hemingway] famous, the beauty of his boat is of the spare, clean, serviceable kind.” Lynn Mitsuko Kaufelt’s essay on poet Elizabeth Bishop, “A Poet’s House,” though mostly about Bishop, also mentions Hemingway: “If Heminway was our lion, forging his own legend, Elizabeth Bishop was our lamb, retreating from hers.”

Bishop is also the key figure in other pieces, including a poem “Where Greatness Lived” by Arida Wright and the essay “Ready and Willing” by Thomas Travisano. Wright in her poem heralds “Finally, a woman poet / On this island of bones.” In Travisano’s piece, he observes that along with its cheap rents in the 1930s, that “Key West, with its warm and generally agreeable climate, offered Bishop a possible release from the struggle for breath she had experienced since childhood due to chronic asthma.” And as a special treat—especially for Bishop fans—the anthology includes an essay by Bishop, “Gregorio Valdes,” about a painter she admired, and Bishop’s poem, “Late Air.” The essay on Valdes also includes two fine pictures of his paintings.

Tennessee Williams, yet another famous writer with Key West connections, is also featured in “Charming Tennessee” by Lynn Mitsuko Kaufelt, in which she describes her first meeting with the playwright. “Tennessee was charming, he was sensitive, he was extremely gracious.” Joy Williams also offers a piece on Tennessee Williams, called “Tennessee in Extremis.” The essay notes that: “Tennessee Williams’s talent died twenty years before he did, and he knew it.” Both essays include photographs of the late playwright, a few including his pet bulldogs. Thomas McGuane, author of Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973) and many other books, contributes several pieces to this anthology, including one on Williams in which he writes: “The Hemingway period had come and gone, but an authentic giant remained: Tennessee Williams.”

In addition to its many excellent selections in prose and poetry, the anthology is lavishly illustrated with photographs depicting scenes and famous (and not famous) peoples of Key West, which enhance the book with their color and detail. The pages of the book are printed on a high-quality paper—almost if not actually photography paper—and so the reproductions of the photos are excellent. A Kindle edition is available, but if you buy this book, and this reviewer encourages you to do so, then treat yourself to the actual book to best enjoy these stunning photographs.

With more than sixty essays and poems about Key West, all in all, there are far too many essays, poems, and literary pieces to describe one by one in a review. Yet, without doubt, this is a glorious anthology of over forty contributors.

The book would make a wonderful gift—to one’s literary-minded friends or as a gift to oneself. Many hours can be spent reading through this captivating and illustrious collection.

Carey Winfrey

The editor Carey Winfrey is a part-time resident of Key West and a veteran American journalist who has worked in various media outlets including Time, the New York Times, WNET, and CBS Cable, among others. He was the founding editor of Memories magazine and the former editor-in-chief of CuisineAmerican Health, and Smithsonian magazines.

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