A trek through Florida: as strange and surreal as the land of Oz

Up for Grabs: A Trip Through Time and Space in the Sunshine State, by John Rothchild. New York: Viking. 224 pp. $15.95. The Florida John Rothchild brings into view in ``Up for Grabs,'' is not at all like the Sunshine State explained by time-share condominium salesmen. Nor is it anything like what the chamber of commerce would have us see.

No, Mr. Rothchild's Florida is as fantastic and other-worldly as Disney World, but not nearly so pleasant. It is a land populated by Marielitos, Haitians, deposed Latin American dictators, drug dealers, poachers, real estate agents, and other renegades and entrepreneurs -- a volatile mixture of types that could as easily have come from a fiction by Marquez as from real life.

And not only are the inhabitants a variegated lot, but strangeness attaches to the land itself, especially since much of the land was not land a century or so ago. An explanation is in order.

Rothchild tells us that, up until the early years of this century, ``Half the property south of Orlando could only have been called `land' during the winter dry season.'' It was swamp, by and large, but some people realized that Will Rogers was wrong when he said they aren't making any more of it, and, quite simply, they made more land.

Improvements on God's work were accomplished by dredging and filling, and ``in the span of a contemporary lifetime, Florida was elevated by dredges, elevated from post-Pleistocene aqueous directly to retirement subdivision without an epoch in between.''

And were people ready to buy this land? You bet. Over the years, entrepreneurs like Richard Bolles, Leonard Rosen, Milt Mendelsohn, Charles Antell, and corporations like Gulf American hawked land to Northerners who were eager to escape the privations of winter and who saw (with the aid of the real estate army) Florida's climate ``as a service industry . . . expected to gratify mankind.''

It worked so well that Miami grew from a sleepy city of 29,571 in 1920 to 172,172 in 1940 to nearly 400,000 now. St. Petersburg in 1920 had 14,237 inhabitants; today it approaches 250,000. Many other Florida cities exhibit similar growth.

Rothchild gives considerable attention to the surreal nature of land and its buyers and sellers in ``Up for Grabs.'' At one point he wonders: ``What could any land board have done to protect purchasers who back home would spend three weeks investigating a used car, but in Florida immediately would sign installment contracts for lots they could not reach, except perhaps via swamp buggy? Who can regulate dreams? Checking the Gulf American ads, or any land sales ads, for factual errors had all the futility of checking the road maps to Oz.''

There is even, writes Rothchild, a real estate agent ``who relocated oligarchs; she is the person to call in Miami if a government is about to fall.'' Perhaps nothing is too strange to contemplate concerning real estate in America -- remember, Manhattan's original purchase price was in the low two figures.

There is a good deal more to ``Up For Grabs'' than speculation and reportage about land. Rothchild takes up Florida's thin history, its legacy of pirates, drug trafficking, the Latin influx, mobsters, and his own back-to-the-land efforts in Everglade City.

All this is cast in a prose which suggests Rolling Stone magazine, slightly leavened. Rothchild is at times cynical, at times exasperated, and at times frightened, as when an anticommunist, anti-Castro, CIA-trained terrorist holds him and two friends at gunpoint in Venezuela.

The informing vision of Florida in ``Up for Grabs'' is the surpassing strangeness of it all. And it is all of a piece: Everglades residents who are drug dealers were once alligator poachers, and their ancestors were moonshine haulers. The daughter of a Venezuelan dictator marries one of Meyer Lansky's casino managers, a man who is friends with those planning to poison Castro's soup.

There is even a real estate entrepreneur who quoted Keats in a letter to his detractors. ``Beauty is truth, truth beauty -- that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know. So said the poet Keats and so say I,'' he wrote. If that is not enough to make you want to read this engaging and irreverent blend of autobiography, muckraking, history, reportage, and myth, I don't know what is.

James Kaufmann reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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