Carroll. Michael. “Stella Maris: And Other Key West Stories”, Turtle Point Press, 2019.
In the Conch Republic
I love Michael Carroll’s new story collection but I have been hesitant to post my review since it will be out until April. This means that it cannot be read and enjoyed just yet. Nonetheless, something whispered in my ear today to go ahead and write the review and post it to perhaps build up some enthusiasm for the collection of stories. I have a tendency to gush over books that I really like but I am going to restrain myself this time and be a bit conservative even though I want to yell out that I LOVE THIS BOOK.
I also love Key West but it has been many many years since I have been there and I doubt I will get there again anytime soon. Carroll did make me want to reconsider that thought and who knows what may come my way. I would never have dreamt that I would leave the intoxication and magic of New Orleans to live in staid and intellectual Boston but here I am.
What surprised me the most about “Stella Maris” is that I traditionally do not read or like short stories; I just do not enjoy them and I found myself deeply involved in each of Carroll’s eight stories. We enter a different world in Key West and even today it reminds us of how it was when who-was-who mixed with who-was-there and social class and fame held no importance. Key West has always had that mysterious quality of drawing people to her and not letting them go even when they physically depart. And those who depart do so with some Key West within. It has become of “the” places to go to and has been a beacon that brings people in to its bohemian world that still manages to exist. It is a mecca for the LGBT community and it certainly provided Michael Carroll with a home from where to spin these stories. If you know Key West, you can place the stories in their venue without much thought and if you don’t know Key West you can make up venues—it really doesn’t matter. What you do need is grit to go along with the grittiness of what you read here. I had forgotten (just go along with this lousy sentence structure— I am very aware of it) just how important where you went to college was and what fraternity you were a member of in the lives of Southerners but Carroll quickly reminded me rekindling my memories about the genteelness and class consciousness of Southern queens— especially those from Charleston and Savannah. “My wife was a goddamn alligator. And the weather sucked. I like cute Southern boys, the ones that went to their moron dads’ frats. Kappa Sig and ATO. Hot sexy dopes”.
We have a story about a memorial for a drag queen, Harlan Douglas aka Cherry de Vine (I hadn’t heard the name Harlan since I left college but one of my best friends and fraternity brothers [not Kappa Sig or ATO] was named Harlan). “Key West Funeral” had me flipping pages very quickly. We have a story about two Southern sisters on a cruise ship holiday who have to deal with alcoholism, estrangement, and horrible weather. Then we have a look at two newly divorced gay men who pick themselves up and become part of the evenings at the end of the world. Another story is set at an all-male, clothing-optional resort where guys of all ages literally fall into one another’s paths, enjoy themselves as they please, and also regale one another on their views and preconceptions.
Michael Carroll also does not allow us to forget that there was a time that our lives revolved around illness and death. The past may leave us but its mark remains and that mark is often those graves that were left by those who died from AIDS. We became very aware of “our own mortality and the unpredictable nature of life and of survival. It’s about new beginnings and final recognitions.” As you can probably imagine, Carroll is outspoken yet tender, lustful and often enraged, sad and fun at the same time. His writing sparkles and shines as he embraces the lives of his characters and I am quite sure that he based them on people he knows or had seen in Key West giving these stories a relevance since we all know people like the ones we read about here.
I was not expecting to be emotionally touched by these stories but I am glad I was because it gives me one more thing to give Carroll credit for. The stories are microcosms of our lives and who we are with comedy and tragedy combined. I only met Michael once and that was over a coffee a few years ago and I realized that whatever we talked about that day came back in these stories. They are about our lives and how we see them and it takes a certain kind of writer to be able to relate this—- Michael Carroll surpassed any expectations that I had. He is bold and original and he writes what he wants to write about. Using death as his unifier of his stories, it is our last party on the circuit. I daresay that the sadness we feel in reading some of these stories is replaced by a jubilance of being alive.