This year marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of Thomas Sanchez’s Mile Zero. The epic novel unfolds in a richly imagined Key West where St. Cloud, Justo Tamarindo, Zobop, and El Finito are players in a late-twentieth century clash of generations, cultures, and beliefs. Hailed by The New York Times as “a comic masterpiece,” it is, together with Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not and Thomas McGuane’s Panama, a landmark in the literature of our island city.
In 1989, as Knopf was preparing the book for press, Sanchez agreed to an interview with George Murphy, a local former mayoral candidate and editor of the excellent anthology, The Key West Reader: The Best of Key West’s Writers, 1830-1990. Over the course of several late nights at the now-legendary Full Moon Saloon, the following conversation took shape. In the interview, originally published in Island Life, Sanchez discusses the origins and development of Mile Zero, the parallels between Key West and Cannery Row, and the concept of contrabandista.
George Murphy: Thomas, you left the enormous California landscape of your first two books to live in and write about this tiny island. Why?
Thomas Sanchez: I had no intention of writing a novel in Key West when I first arrived there. I was on my way to another island in the Caribbean at the time; stopping in Key West was fortuitous. I had not been able to write fiction for four years. I did have several hundred pages of notes and sketches for a novel set in California and Mexico, but while writing both in California and Mexico, I was unable to match voices to my ideas. I had themes but no language. I was like a singer who has lost his voice, standing alone on a stage, mouthing empty clouds over the heads of a phantom audience.
The first trip to Key West placed me at the confluence of several events, the first being the launching of the initial space shuttle, at the same time a boatload of Haitians fleeing the dictator Baby Doc (Jean-Claude Duvalier) came ashore in the Florida Keys, and another of the ubiquitous loads of cocaine confiscated by the Coast Guard from a fast boat attempting to make landfall near Key West. These three events forged in my mind a new American metaphor, one in the process of birth. The themes of the novel I had been carrying for four years coalesced into hard voices spoken in soft tongues in a fresh language. The illumination was simply that I had physically transported myself 3,000 miles across the continent into a geopolitical context of a transforming world. The key to unlocking that world necessitated undoing the cultural prejudice of my personal history. By that I mean the kind of “educated” American I had become, which had cost me for a time the ability to divine what is most crucial to a novelist, the character of the future which is reflected in the past.
GM:You have referred to Mile Zero as a cosmic Cannery Row. What do you mean by that?
TS: As a boy I lived at the edge of the real Cannery Row in California. It was still physically as Steinbeck had described it in his novel of the same name, as if his words had built a real place. But over time that place fell prey to the commerce of modernity. The old sardine packing houses were transformed into hotels and fancy boutiques, the ghostly quality disappeared beneath the thundering hordes searching for Steinbeck’s people amongst an impossible charade. If you want to go to the real Cannery Row, you must go to Steinbeck’s book; there is the life.
When I arrived in Key West I discovered haunting parallels with Cannery Row, the old wharves where men once set off to shark, turtle, and sponge were still there. So were many of the great stone cigar factories built by the Cubans, all deserted, strangely quiet, but filled with ghostly consequence, and if you knew where to look you could make contact with those distant times; if you kept your ears open you could discover the voices of those still living who were part of those enterprises now thought of as dead. Cannery Row died when the sardines mysteriously disappeared, never to rise again.
Key West has died a thousand deaths, going from the richest city in America to the poorest. Key West died when the sponge blight came; it died when the wrecking laws were changed; it died when the turtles were all slaughtered; it died when slave auctions were abolished after the Civil War; it died when the Navy abandoned its massive base; it died after Prohibition made rum smuggling less than profitable; but each cycle was a tide washing away the old, bearing seeds of the new, changing the status quo. The tide was ceaseless, from clippership captains to freed Bahamian slaves, to Cubans escaping Spanish dictators or dictators of their own making, to modern-day southern hustlers and scammers on the lam from an unforgiving north. The future, when I arrived in Key West, was overhead in the space shuttle. The future was also a boatload of Haitian refugees.
GM: In the fictional vision of Mile Zero, Key West seems to become a character in the novel. Was this intentional?
TS: If no man is an island, then no island is a character. Mile Zero in the end is no more about Key West than Death in Venice is about Venice. Islands are about atmosphere, living at ease or at odds at all times with the elements, land, water, air, wind. Key West is the end of the American road, but also the beginning of the American dream. It is the beginning of America if you are a refugee who lands here. It is America’s thrust in the new realities of the Caribbean Basin. The Spanish first called Key West the “island of bones” (Cayo Hueso) because it was littered with human bones bleached in the sun, bones of Indians left from lost battles with man and nature, bones of shipwrecked souls. For Cubans who emigrated in the last century, Key West was Stella Maris, Star of the Sea, filled with the bright promise of a future not ruled by a dictatorial past. The island is a human metaphor, but the reality is that at any moment a hurricane can wipe the slate clean. It is precisely this awareness that Mile Zero takes as its point of narrative departure.
GM: One of the major plots in Mile Zero involves an exotic Vodou-Santería murder, a crime which seems to haunt the conscience of Key West and has ramifications transcending the small island where the action is played out. The man who represents the conscience of the island is a majestic character, an Afro-Cuban-American cop, Justo Tamarindo. Was Justo, like MK, someone you knew existed before the novel was begun?
TS: No. Justo was a gift. Without Justo I never would have made it through Mile Zero. Justo appeared in the second chapter with such authority; he knew everything there was to know about Key West, about Cuba, about men and women, family and individual honor, spiritualism and the spirit. He is probably the most moral man I have met, in or out of a book. Justo just winked and promised, near ten years ago, when I was on the brink of all those pages thickening with action, “Follow me. I know the way out of here.” And he did. I can say I often followed not knowing where he was leading, but I trusted and he was right. Justo Tamarindo taught me a great deal about life, and even though many early readers of the novel have made an identification between the character of St. Cloud and myself, for the obvious reasons of our similar backgrounds of political activism, it is Justo Tamarindo who inspired me. He became the very rock upon which the island of my novel was built.
GM: If Justo Tamarindo is one of the most majestic characters in fiction, then Zobop can safely be called, although there is nothing remotely safe about Zobop, one of the most terrifying beings or entities created. He is in many ways Faulkner’s entire Snopes clan rolled into one horrific modern nightmare vision. Was it your original intention to have such a dark force explode in the novel?
TS: Zobop was such a hurricane force of howling disaster I had to leave my home to write him. I could not write Zobop with my family in the house– I actually didn’t realize this until after the novel was finished. Not only had I left my home to write Zobop I left the country. The first Zobop soliloquy, which is in many ways a seduction of language set to the tune of a duet with death, was written over a three-month span on the island of Mallorca in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, and that soliloquy is but a mere ten-odd pages long. I was not able to do much more than a series of sentences each day, for the multiplicity of Zobop’s tongues would catch fire and
burn down what reason was left to me. The second Zobop soliloquy was written in the jungle on the island of Hispaniola, over the mountains in Haiti, one of his hells on earth, but I figured when Zobop’s star of stigmata burst, I was going to have to run for the closest exit, catch a plane or a rocket in the opposite direction, Go!
As you know, the planes in Haiti don’t often leave on time.
GM: Zobop is your only character in Mile Zero expressed in the first person, which comes as a shock, almost as a violent reversal of the lyrical flow of the narrative you so carefully created. Zobop’s voice is virtually a mesmerizing scream, taking the reader to the very brink of tolerance. Why did you take such a risk by presenting Zobop in this unorthodox manner?
TS: The most difficult challenge of Zobop was how to make the intolerable tolerable. Zobop was the last voice in the novel to come to
me. He eluded me for years, always lurking at a distance from the primary narrative flow. He was like the hurricane, El Finito, in the novel, always lurking offshore of Key West, threatening to blow every human enterprise asunder. No matter how I tried to trap Zobop he always outsmarted me, as if aware I was using the wrong bait. It wasn’t until a friend of mine had died in Key West that I first heard Zobop’s voice, that mocking sound snaking from under the rock of the island, spurting from lips red with the blood of tomorrow’s Apocalypse. I realized Zobop was speaking directly from his doom diaries, The Tiger-Car Manuals, poison letters from one’s own pen pal in hell. What unnerved me, and early readers of the novel as well, is Zobop has an undeniable method of madness. If you scrape his scales off, you expose a being convinced man is greasing the road to his own swift destruction, ravaging the planet’s ecology, not only sinning against nature, but altering nature to a hell on earth. Zobop is saying he is the Prince of the new hell, and if we do not heed his words, we are condemned. Zobop is turning up the heat.
GM: The counter-balance to Zobop is Justo’s belief in family and tradition, as well as St. Cloud’s epic pursuit and humorous seduction of Lila, the young southern woman mysteriously linked to MK. The story of St. Cloud and Lila is in fact a great love story, but with a twist on sexual and emotional roles. Is Lila a modern version of the female D.H. Lawrence of whom he predicted the coming in his The Woman Who Rode Away?
TS: Lila began as an enigma. The other women in the novel were predictable in the sense that they had played out their formative years in the 1960s and ’70s; they were radical feminists, such as St. Cloud’s wife, Evelyn, who slept with soldiers to persuade them against their killing ways, and finally abandons the world of men for a life with women. The counter to Evelyn is Angelica, who is by her actions militantly anti-feminist, the woman who won’t take yes for an answer, the woman who is the progenitor of men, maker and receiver of their sexuality, who, in a Biblical sense, would be less of a mother and more of a harlot. In her honesty Angelica is probably the least complicated woman in the novel. Inventor of desire, destroyer of inhibitions. Lila, on the other hand, is certainly a product of the post-feminist generation, a child of the ’70s coming of age in the ’80s.
The reason Lila remains an enigma to the reader and St. Cloud for so long a period is that Lila is an enigma to herself. Only after Lila’s confrontation with St. Cloud’s erotic obsession, and his pursuit of idealistic love, can she fit the puzzle of her identity together. At a very young age Lila had been the lover of two men from the 1960s, MK and St. Cloud, and it becomes clear that the 1960s and 1980s are in many ways irreconcilable, two times out of joint. Lila in the end is the only one who can see her way clear to independence, freed of a past not of her making, beyond her comprehension. Lila steps into the 1990s leaving all her emotional baggage on the launching pad. She is going some place new, is someone to watch, is in the end our future. When Lila drives away from St. Cloud in the climactic moment, one desperately wants to slip into the car with her, just to see where she is going.
GM: One last question: Key West, inch for inch, has probably been host to more writing talent than any other comparable piece of American real estate, from Jack London, Hart Crane, John Dos Passos, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, and on up to John Hersey, Peter Taylor, James Merrill, and Richard Wilbur. Given all the words that have flowed over the years from Key West, you have identified one word which above all describes the island: contrabandista. Contrabandista is now a word linked by critics to the literary legend of Key West. What did you originally mean by it?
TS: Contrabandista is the operative word on the island. It touches upon the legitimate heritage of Key West, for Key West in a deep sense is Dodge City on the Gulf Stream. Islands by their natural circumstances are at once isolated and insular, such as writers often are, but at the same time they are subject to whims of the great bodies of water which surround them. Key West was, from its uncivilized beginning, an island of pirates and wreckers, surviving on the contraband of distant civilizations brought close at hand by the tides of fate and commerce which ruled the surrounding sea. From those times, through the time of the “Pelican,” the rum runners of Prohibition days, to the scammers and smugglers of the space age, Key West has hummed along with its outlaw agenda, knowing that what the tide of time brings, it can also take away. Laws change, rules shift, society is fickle, what is illegal one day is legal the next night, and illegal the following morning. In some ways writers are the ultimate contrabandistas, forever searching a hard currency of truth amid the vast armada of history sailing past on unpredictable and ever-changing currents. If a writer has a quick eye, thick hide, fast heart, he or she can make out quite well as a contrabandista.