Thursday, May 25, 2006

Gail Godwin's Queen of the Underworld

I’ve long been a fan of Gail Godwin’s. She has a way of penetrating the intricacies of human relationships that is both illuminating and satisfying. I adored The Good Husband, a story of two couples in a small university town. The main character, Magda, a professor, is dying and the book brings up questions about love, loyalty, and the true character of devotion.

So I was looking forward to reading Godwin’s latest book, Queen of the Underworld. And in the beginning, I was not disappointed. It tells the story of young Emma Gant as she graduates from college and heads down to Miami to start her first job as a newspaper reporter. Emma is talented and ambitious and thinks she understands more of the world than she actually does. This attitude comes because she has been involved in a year long liaison with a Jewish club owner, the married Paul Nightingale.

The scene Godwin sets is unforgettable. It is 1959, months after Fidel Castro has seized power in Cuba, and scores of disillusioned wealthy Cubans are streaming to Miami. They don’t know if Castro will remain in power or be ousted by the Americans, so their exile has a temporary quality to it. Emma is staying in a hotel filled with these Cuban refugees, and Godwin does an excellent job is creating vivid characters, like Alex, the hotel manager, a Harvard graduate, and wanna-be fighter. Alex’s mother Lidia has been married five times and is a beautiful, larger-than-life figure who organizes opposition to Castro by throwing cocktail parties around the pool.

Godwin also does an wonderful job describing the newsroom of the fictional Miami Star and the challenges facing young female reporters. Godwin worked as a reporter for the Miami Herald in 1959 until she was fired. (And turned to fiction) Al Neuharth, the loquacious and slick founder of USA Today was the assistant managing editor of the Herald when Godwin was there. She gets her revenge on him 46 years later by creating the character Lou Norbright, a newspaper man so ambitious and odious that colleagues call him Lucifer behind his back.

A third plot element has to do with a newspaper series Norbright wrote called “Queen of the Underworld,” about a beautiful young farm girl who became engaged to a member of the Mafia, and then went to work as a madam in a brothel.

So Godwin sets up a wonderful environment. Emma keeps being sent on to cover inane stories and I kept waiting for her to realize that the biggest story of all – the Cuban migration into Miami – is sitting right in front of her at her hotel. But does Emma see this? Is there ever a moment of epiphany? No.

This is where Godwin falls short. There really is no plot, no dénouement, and this ultimately proves disappointing. The book instead just seems to be a reflection of the choices Godwin made in her life. In the end, Emma decides to write a fictional account of the Queen of the Underworld. She doesn’t shun journalism; she just decides to explore a different way of getting at the truth.

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