Oct/Nov 2020  •   Reviews & Interviews

When Everyone is a Free Agent

Review by Denton Loving

The Edge of America.
Jon Sealy.
Haywire Books. 2019. 324 pp.
ISBN 978-1950182008.

What could go wrong when Holly Hernandez, a beautiful 17-year-old girl, takes three million dollars from her father's hidden safe and hits the road? This is the set-up for Jon Sealy's heart-thumping sophomore novel, The Edge of America. Sealy centers his narrative in Miami, Florida, during the 1980's, exploring the many facets that shaped the city as a beacon for money, greed, drugs, misguided politics and organized crime.

It's not safe to trust anyone in this city. "Such was the nature of Miami, it seemed," Sealy writes. "Everyone was a free agent. Everyone worked more than one side."

Take Holly's father Robert West for example. On paper, he's the chief financial officer of Artium Group, but it's a poorly-kept secret that the hemorrhaging company is a front for the CIA to keep tabs on Castro as well as the large number of Cuban immigrants who have made Miami home. West has two faults. First is his idealism, blindly following an already outdated dream to overthrow Castro from power as part of the country's cold war fight. West's second fault is believing he can handle a South Florida gangster and an Israeli assassin who both want their three million dollars back.

In many ways, Sealy's Miami is a microcosm for America as a whole, city and country in the midst of an identity crisis. At the center of both crises is the drug trade. Cocaine and heroin are everywhere. Reagan is waging his war on drugs, but behind the scenes, the CIA is using drugs to fight proxy wars. And where there are drugs, there's money laundering and guns. But as easily as those ingredients add up to high stakes for every character, Sealy's exploration dives far deeper. Below the surface, Sealy's novel is an exploration of greed and power where characters are constantly testing the limits of the American dream, searching for the cracks in the façade of the American promise.

Perhaps the most visible crack is described by Felix Machado, a Cuban exile, who has no illusions about America. Machado thinks, "The Anglos all lived in a state of permanent dislocation. This was the definition of America, a tree separated from its roots. The Anglos were homeless but didn't realize they lacked a home, for their home was as abstract as the Garden of Eden." Machado's idea of American dislocation has less to do with geography and more to do with the disruption that comes when you no longer can trust your emotional center. In The Edge of America, this is most often embodied in that nearly every character is estranged from his or her parents or children. West is disillusioned by his Mid-West upbringing. Holly's theft and unpredictable behavior stem from her inability to accept her parents' break-up.

Then there's Keith Sorrels, another such character. Inexperienced in life, Keith has only a distant relationship with his mother and Baptist-minister father, unable to relate or trust his father's deep faith. As soon as he turned 18, he left upstate South Carolina for the more metropolitan Savannah. Disenchanted after a few years, he heads to Miami thanks to a job lead from a friend. Everything happens fast in Miami, and Keith finds himself working for the gangster to whom Robert West owes money, as well as romantically entangled with Holly. When Holly leaves town with the three million dollars, she takes Keith with her, setting off a chain of events that will forever change both of their lives.

The Edge of America is an ensemble cast of memorable characters, but the most remarkable character is the city of Miami, a city shown as diversified as it is unyielding, a city that "had its glamour and elegance, as well as the shadows and dirt of human life." Just as the novel is equal parts thriller and psychological gut-punch, Sealy's Miami is constructed from equal parts history and myth. It's tempting to believe only an iconic city like 1980's Miami could produce such a story and characters as complicated as these. Maybe that's true, or maybe any of us at any time are capable of such misdeeds. As Robert West says, "Weren't we all soft, spoiled fruit, with bruises beneath out skin? Hadn't we all sampled the tree of knowledge and made our compromises?"


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