American Beach: How Progress Robbed a Black Town—and Nation—of History, Wealth, and Power
by Russ Rymer
HarperCollins, 1998 337 pp. $25 cloth $14 paper
Russ Rymer has written a powerful book of what C. Wright Mills called “sociological poetry,” escorting the reader into a world that is unknown to most everyone who doesn’t live there, the historically black Florida Atlantic Coast island community of American Beach. Rymer persuasively suggests that this settlement not far from Jacksonville, founded in the 1930s as a resort for blacks and now decaying, encroached upon by luxury hotels and golf courses, is “America distilled into something strong and clear,” a microcosm for the unending saga of the enslavement of Africans in America, and a fit place to inspect the relationships of the poor to the rich, the losers to the winners, in an America that thinks “you’re history” means “you’re over and done with.”
American Beach was published in November 1998 by a commercial publisher—that is to say, it was let loose into an indifferent world behind a whirlwind called Monica Does Bill, so that, while well reviewed, it was not an Event. It did not come stamped with a thesis ready made to be transmitted via sound bites into the airlock where Imus, Winfrey, and other impresarios escort hot cultural products into media daylight. It was not written by a name author, although Rymer has written for many name magazines, and his first book, Genie: A Scientific Tragedy, was also well reviewed. American Beach was full of the strangeness and pain of American life, and it was not averse to significant ideas and it was splendidly written, but it did not buzz. It investigated wrongs, but it was not investigative. It was deeply concerned with the workings of American society, it was, in fact, a textbook case of the sociological imagination—which (as Mills defined it) sees private troubles as public issues—but it was not an issues book, it was rather a book about American reality, “A Saga of Race, Wealth, and Memory,” in the words of the original subtitle, that, along the way, brought to life issues of land use, racial injustice, police malfeasance, and black culture. It was full of finely drawn characters, including police, tough guys, old women, businessmen, a college president, and most remarkably the central character, a woman with no fixed domicile who has taken a vow of poverty, a “six foot tall, sixtyish black woman dressed in flip flops and layers of felt, with eighteen inch fingernails and a five foot fall of hair festooned with political buttons, trained down her back, carried in a ball at her waist, and coifed into a foot high cock’s comb atop her head,” who despite her remarkable appearance had not been featured on Oprah or Jerry Springer’s show. She wasn’t Happening. And the book did not, in the contemporary ma...
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