McKeen Takes On Key West And The Ghosts of Writers Past

Inside Outdoors
By Don Jordan
Dec. 22, 2011
Bloomington, Indiana

Book Review: McKeen, William. Mile Marker Zero: The Moveable Feast of Key West. 2011.
Crown Publishers, New York. ISBN: 978-0-307-59200-2.

In this story, celebrity writers booze, lust and fish their way through a never-ending haze of boozy days and nights and non-stop sexual peccadilloes. Everyone has a lot of fun.

Bill McKeen has repopulated Key West with the ghosts of everyone from Earnest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams to Tom McGuane, Hunter Thompson, Jimmy Buffett and a large cast of supporting characters in Mile Marker Zero.

Key West is of course located at mile marker zero on U.S. Highway 1, the "overseas" highway that makes it possible to drive to the southernmost point in the U.S by spanning the chain of islands that comprise the Florida Keys. Key West is where the author of Outlaw Journalist (2008) tracks down and spins a real-life story of the rise and fall of some titans you will recognize.

This is actually a history book and is told by a good writer who knows how to tell a story.

We learn the island was called Cayo Hueso (Bone Island) by the Spanish, because the island was covered with human bones apparently left by one or another group of prehistoric native people, going back over 10,000 years. The first Spaniards to arrive on the island were "taken aback" by the enormous piles of human bones deposited there in heaps. "Key West" is an English corruption of the Spanish "Cayo Hueso."

McKeen gives us a Hemingway Key West primer, then moves on to those bad boys of the 70s. Writers Jim Harrison and Tom McGuane, all-around guy Tom Corcoran, Russell Chatham, and the rich playboy Guy de la Valdene together formed the nucleus of a group locals started calling "The Boys" because that's what they acted like. Drinking, whoring and fishing were their primary pursuits.

They hung out at legendary watering holes like Captain Tony's and Sloppy Joes. Corcoran worked the bar at The Chart Room and Mallory Square was just another waterfront dock in those days before hundreds of well-heeled tourists started coming to see the alleged "green flash" that happens in some instant during a Key West sundown.

Jimmy Buffett shows up in this play as a kid looking for something to do. McKeen details Buffett's rise to celebrity and beyond.

The making of the movie 92 In The Shade in Key West is one of the best stories. Written and directed by McGuane who had never directed a movie, the final product was a disaster. But, considering that McGuane was juggling a wife and two actresses, Margot Kidder and Elizabeth Ashley, it is a wonder there was a film at all.

Oh, Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo himself, also showed up in Key West during the late McGuane period where various members of the boys club "babysat" the berserk journalist.

McKeen follows them all to their ends, declines or aging lives. Wives and ex-wives are accounted for, as are various children of the various characters who made Key West an interesting spot in the 1970s. In reading MMZ, the author's newspaper writing background becomes evident. He writes in a reporter's voice and style, meaning the book is a pleasure to read and lacks the obfuscation and fog we see in writing from some authors (Hemingway for example).

This is a well-written piece of history. It is so well done that you really don't think of it as history while reading. It is an important contribution to history of a time on Bone Island after the Vietnam War and before Ronald Reagan. We read of the arrival of Jimmy Buffett just as we see the old Key West dissolve into a gay theme park where nobody but the wealthy can affor to live. MMZ is a fast read, and I can tell it was written by a guy from the newspaper business. Bill McKeen's first job was as a reporter at the Bloomington, Indiana, Courier-Tribune where we met in 1972. Bill was the kid just out of high school, and I was the Vietnam vet just back from the war. McKeen is a graduate of University High School in Bloomington and still has ties there.

McKeen never looked back after the Courier-Tribune folded in 1973, and his career has taken him into academia where is now chairman of the Journalism department at Boston University. His reputation as a writer of journalism history was made with the publication of the Hunter Thompson biography Outlaw Journalist in 2008. Mile Marker Zero is another notch on his pistol grip and ranks among the best books about Key West ever written.

Buy this book. You will like it. Here is a link to buy the book online:

©Copyright 2011. Donald Lee Jordan

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