Dorsey World

There are all sorts of stories flying around about what Tim Dorsey was doing on that June night in 1992 when he ended up in jail. One involved a drunk Dorsey breaking into someone's house, stripping down to his underpants and passing out on the sofa, where the occupants found him and called the cops to cart him away.

The real story, at least the way Dorsey tells it in his wholesome, self-deprecating way, is somewhat less tawdry. "It was the night of a thousand idiots, and all of them were me," he says.

The 41-year-old former newspaper reporter and editor is now a full-time author whose fourth novel, Triggerfish Twist, will hit bookstores May 1. His books are distributed in Germany, France, Japan and England, as well as the U.S., and have gotten favorable notices in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Miami Herald.

Though he's now a successful novelist, at the time of his arrest, Dorsey was night metro editor at The Tampa Tribune, working nights and weekends, with days off in the middle of the week, when everyone else is at work.

On one of his midweek nights off, he went out barhopping alone. "I was taking a cab and talking to the cabbie about working late hours ... and not being able to find much open late," says Dorsey. "He took me to a bottle club."

Dorsey had been drinking beer, but all they were pouring at the club was scotch, and it hit him pretty hard. He remembers talking to a stranger and hitching a ride from him.

"I fell asleep in the car," says Dorsey. "He must have kept asking me where I lived, and when he couldn't wake me, the guy just put me out of his car. I walked up onto a porch and just fell asleep."

But before falling asleep, Dorsey apparently tried to enter the house, maybe thinking he was home because he somehow managed to poke out a screen. He was arrested and charged with Burglary of a Dwelling, a Class 2 felony, and spent the rest of the night and the next day in jail. "It was horrible," says Dorsey, "but I knew I was gonna get out, and so I kinda dug it. It was research."

The charge was reduced to trespassing, and Dorsey was sentenced to perform 20 hours of community service. He worked out a deal to do his penance at the downtown Tampa library, cataloging the incredible historic photographic collection by the Burgert Brothers. "I'd commit crimes to have access to those photos," says Dorsey, who grew up in Riviera Beach, about an hour north of Miami.

The Burgert Brothers collection is the kind of thing Dorsey's fiendish main character, the psychopathic genius and Floridaphile Serge Storms, would be mad about. In fact, it's the kind of thing Serge might drive across the state in the middle of the night and break into the library just to see.

Dorsey and Storms share a manic love for and an encyclopedic knowledge of Florida history and trivia, as well as a collection of Florida memorabilia, much of which has its origins in that weird schedule he worked at the Tribune before he was married. "It wrecked my social life," he says, "so I just scheduled road trips and went alone."

On his trips, he collected matchbooks, swizzle sticks, brochures and other odds and ends. He searched out obscure locations featured in his favorite Florida movies and in books set in Florida, which he also collected with a somewhat obsessive fervor. He found them first in dusty bookshops and later on the Internet. "It was like a free supply of crack," he says of his discovery of rare books on the Internet, where he refined his collection of first editions and signed copies by the likes of Thomas McGuane, John D. McDonald, Edna Buchanan and Randy Wayne White, among others.

Dorsey's work is clearly inspired by Florida authors, and his knowledge of them came in handy after he wrote his first book, Florida Roadkill. He started writing it at the end of 1997, finished it four months later and immediately set out to find an agent who already understood the Florida fiction genre. He decided to try the agent who represented James Hall, whom he describes as "another Florida author who wrote about Florida with a dark sense of humor."

Hall's agent signed Dorsey immediately and within a month and a half landed a two-book deal with William Morrow and Avon Books. By the time Florida Roadkill came out, Dorsey had four additional contracts with foreign publishers. He quit his job at the Tribune; his last day in August of 1999 was the day his first book hit the bookstores. "I had to quit," he says, explaining that writing and promoting books is a full-time business. "At first it was really pushing a rock uphill." With one hardcover book to his name, his only readers were older female mystery fans and Florida fiction aficionados. It wasn't till his books came out in softcover, he says, that he started to reach a broader audience.

Dorsey's novels are filled with references to real people and situations, proving once again that truth is always stranger and funnier than fiction could ever be. "I'm dealing with stuff right on the edge of reality," he says. Readers will recognize plenty of the people and places that Dorsey skewers.

One of the funniest bits in the book involves a grand new bank building designed with a very special atrium. It's actually a reference to the new Tribune/Channel 8 News Center, where functionality is sacrificed for grandiosity to the point that, Dorsey says, "there's this blinding beam of light and people having to wear hats and shades to work. It's insanity, classic corporate insanity."

Dorsey makes a point of saying he loves the people he worked with at the Tribune and he loved working there. "But I have to mock the corporation," he says "because it's such a classic, ridiculous corporation. ... We used to take the latest corporate mission statement and add: "and to make the thickest, creamiest shakes.'"

Tampa provided plenty of other targets for Dorsey's satire as well, including Dale Mabry and South Tampa, particularly that stretch of South Howard Avenue so pretentiously called SoHo, after a trendy New York neighborhood it doesn't resemble at all. "It made the young professionals feel cosmo, writes Dorsey, "but it only increased the reek of small pond."

The best satirists have a true affection for their subject. They adore the foibles of their quarry for their comedic possibilities. Dorsey's affection for the posers, consultants, crack heads, strippers, convenience stores, motels and swamps is evident in his books. "I'm target-rich," says Dorsey, and you can tell by reading his books that he has fun writing them. "I'm doing what I always wanted to do," he says. "I used to think there was about one-tenth of one percent it would happen." Contact Susan Edwards at 813-248-8888. ext. 122, or at [email protected].

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Prologue

My name is Edith Grabowski. I'm eighty-one years old, and I had sex last night.

I wanted to tell you that up front and get it out of the way because that's what all the TV people want to know. They giggle and use silly nicknames for sex when they ask. I don't think they're getting any.

I'd never been on national TV in my life before last week, and now I've been on six times in four days. In a few minutes, it'll be seven.

I'd also never been to Los Angeles. We're in the green room right now, but my husband Ambrose says its blue. He's wrong, but I don't say anything. That's how you make a marriage last.

We're newlyweds. But you knew that already unless you've been on another planet or just come out of a coma. We were married on the Today Show by Al Roker, because he has a notary license. They say ratings went through the roof. We're rich now, too.

One of those network hospitality ladies in a blue blazer is asking me if I'm okay again. Do I want a pillow or some juice? I tell her I'm fine. She pats my hand and smiles that stupid false smile the stewardesses give you when you're getting off the plane. You just want to smack her.

They usually want to know about the sex right after they ask how on earth we stayed alive. They still can't believe we didn't all die. What's not to believe? We just ...

Uh-oh, here comes another woman in a blazer. This one's blond. Am I all right? Of course I'm all right! I can take care of myself. That's how I got to be eighty-one. I'd like to see you make it. And don't touch me!

It's like this every time, every show. Just because I'm eighty-one, they treat me like some kind of magical little pet that can only understand four simple commands and will crap itself if they don't watch out. I'm the one who gets the most questions on camera because I say what's on my mind. Fifty years ago I was just pushy, but now I'm a "character" or a "live wire."

The networks go nuts over any story where an old person shows spunk. That's why you hear so much about Florida these days. They might as well just move their studios down there. Seems every other month one of us from the bingo hall makes the rounds of the TV shows. Last time it was that seventy-six-year-old woman from Fort Lauderdale who bit the pit bull.

That's true. She was walking her poodle, Mr. Peepers — TV made a big deal about the name — and some lovely neighbors raising pit bulls in their backyard car-chassis farm left the gate open. Anyway, the pit bull wouldn't let go of Mr. Peepers, so she bit its ear and it ran off yelping. The way the media reacted, you'd have thought she cured cancer or invented a car that ran on tap water.

So I guess it's my turn. I don't mind telling the story again, but they always bring up the sex, like at the mere mention of it I'm going to do a handspring for them.

Or maybe: "Yippeeeeee!"

I shouldn't complain. I'm having the time of my life. I'm married to the man of my dreams. I've had a crush on Ambrose since I was seventy-eight.

They just told us to get ready here in the green room. They say we're about to go on. We have notecards about possible questions. About what kind of neighborhood it was.

They say it was such a quiet neighborhood. It's always a quiet neighborhood. Then the whole place goes berserk and everyone acts surprised. But they shouldn't. If you ask me, it's just people. Even the quietest neighborhoods are just two or three arguments away from a chain-reaction meltdown.

We can hear the audience applauding. They want the story. Can't say I blame 'em. So did we. I mean, me and my girlfriends — we were just trying to stay alive. We didn't see a tenth of what was going on in the neighborhood. Same with everyone else. Things were happening all over the place. Everyone only saw a small part of the whole picture, but we were able to compare notes at the rehearsal dinner and pretty much piece it together. The entire wedding party was involved in some way. My bridesmaids were all with me, trapped as we were. Ambrose probably saw as much as anyone, riding up front in the big chase after the shootout. His best man was Jim Davenport. Poor Jim Davenport. He was such a nice, gentle man. Still is, but I don't think he's ever going to be right again. It was just one thing after another; I still don't know how he held up. The ushers, Ambrose's neighbors — they saw a good bit, too. Then there was Serge. Serge had actually been Ambrose's first choice for best man, but nobody knows where he disappeared to after the gunfire started, and the explosions and all the car wrecks and the electrical transformers blowing up and strippers running naked in traffic and nearly half the city burning down.

They've just gave us the one-minute signal in the green room.

Story time again. Probably the best place to start is Jim Davenport, seeing as he was in the middle of everything.

Yeah, we'll start there.

And I guess we should start with the one question everyone's asking these days. Not just the TV people, but folks everywhere. They all ask the exact same thing ... I'll shut up now and let the narrator take over.

Chapter One

So what's up with Florida?

Talk about a swing in reputation. Forty years ago the Sunshine State was an unthreatening View-Master reel of orange groves, alligator wrestlers, tail-walking dolphins and shuffleboard. Near the turn of the millennium, Florida had become either romantically lawless or dangerously stupid, and often both: Casablanca without common sense, Dodge City with more weapons, the state that gave you the Miami Relatives on the evening news every night for nine straight months and changed the presidential election with a handful of confetti. Consider that two of the most famous Floridians in recent years have been Janet Reno and the Anti-Reno, Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Is there no middle genetic ground?

And yet they keep coming to Florida. People who maintain such records report that every single day, a thousand new residents move into the state. The reasons are varied. Retirement, beaches, affordable housing, growing job base, tax relief, witness protection, fugitive warrants, forfeiture laws that shelter your house if you're a Heisman trophy winner who loses a civil suit in the stabbing death of your wife, and year-round golf.

On a typical spring morning, five of those thousand new people piled into a cobalt-blue Dodge Aerostar in Logansport, Indiana. The Davenports — Jim, Martha and their three children. They watched the moving van pull out of their driveway and followed it south.

A merging driver on the interstate ramp gave Jim the bird. He would have given him two birds, but he was on the phone. Jim grinned and waved and let the man pass.

Jim Davenport was like many of the other thousand people heading to Florida this day, except for one crucial difference. Of all of them, Jim was hands-down the most non-confrontational.

Jim avoided all disagreement and didn't have the heart to say no. He loved his family and fellow man, never raised his voice or fists, and was rewarded with a lifelong, routine digestion of small doses of humiliation. The belligerent, boorish and bombastic latched onto him like strangler figs.

He was utterly content.

Then Jim moved his family to Florida, and before summer was over a most unnatural thing happened. Jim went and killed a few people.

None of this was anywhere near the horizon as the Davenports began the second day of their southern interstate migration.

The road tar at the bottom of Georgia began to soften and smell in the afternoon sun. It was a Saturday, the traffic on I-75 thick and anxious. Hondas, Mercurys, Subarus, Chevy Blazers. A blue Aerostar with Indiana tags passed the exit for the town of Tifton, "Sod Capital of the USA," and a billboard: "Jesus is Lord ... at Buddy's Catfish Emporium."

A sign marking the Florida state line stood in the distance, along with the sudden appearance of palm trees growing in a precise grid. The official state welcome center rose like a mirage through heat waves off the highway. Cars accelerated for the oasis with the runaway anticipation of traffic approaching a Kuwaiti checkpoint on the border with Iraq.

They pulled into the hospitality center's angled parking slots; doors opened and children jumped out and ran around the grass in the aimless, energetic circles for which they are known. Parents stretched and rounded up staggering amounts of trash and headed for garbage bins. A large Wisconsin family in tank tops sat at a picnic table eating bologna sandwiches and generic cheese doodles so they could afford a thousand-dollar day at Disney. A crack team of state workers arrived at the curb in an unmarked van and began pressure washing some kind of human fluid off the sidewalk. A stray ribbon of police tape blew across the pavement.

The Aerostar parked near the vending machines, in front of the "No Nighttime Security" sign.

"Who needs to go to the bathroom?" asked Jim.

Eight-year-old Melvin put down his mutant action figures and raised a hand.

Sitting next to him with folded arms and dour outlook was Debbie Davenport, a month shy of sweet sixteen, totally disgusted to be in a minivan. She was also disgusted with the name Debbie. Prior to the trip she had informed her parents that from now on she would only go by "Drusilla."

"Debbie, you need to use the restroom?"

No reply.

Martha got out a bottle for one-year-old Nicole, cooing in her safety seat, and Jim and little Melvin headed for the building.

Outside the restrooms, a restless crowd gathered in front of an eight-foot laminated map of Florida, unable to accept that they were still hundreds of miles from the nearest theme park. They would become even more bitter when they pulled away from the welcome center, and the artificial grove of palms gave way to hours of scrubland and billboards for topless doughnut shops.

Jim bought newspapers and coffee. Martha took over the driving and pulled back on I-75. Jim unfolded one of the papers and read aloud. "Authorities have discovered a tourist from Finland who lost his luggage, passport, all his money and ID and was stranded for eight weeks at Miami International Airport."

"Eight weeks?" said Martha. "How did he take baths?"

"Wet paper towels in the restrooms."

"Where did he sleep?"

"Chairs at different gates each night."

"What did he eat?"

"Bagels from the American Airlines Admiral's Club."

"How did he get in the Admiral's Club if he didn't have ID?"

"Doesn't say."

"If he went to all that trouble, he probably could have gotten some kind of help from the airline. I can't believe nobody noticed him."

"I think that's the point of the story."

"What happened?"

"Kicked him out. He was last seen living at Fort Lauderdale International."

The Aerostar passed a group of police officers on the side of the highway, slowly walking eight abreast looking for something in the weeds. Jim turned the page.

"They've cleared the comedian Gallagher in the Tamiami Strangler case."

"Is that a real newspaper?"

Jim turned back to the front page and pointed at the top. The Tampa Tribune.

Martha rolled her eyes.

"Says they released an artist's sketch. Bald with mustache and long hair on the sides. Police got hundreds of calls that it looked like Gallagher. But they checked his tour schedule — he was out of state the nights of the murders."

"They actually checked him out?"

"They also checked out Gallagher's brother."

Martha looked at Jim, then back at the road.

"After clearing Gallagher, they got a tip that he has a brother who looks just like him and smashes watermelons on a circuit of low-grade comedy clubs under the name Gallagher II. But he was out of town as well."

"I hope I don't regret this move," said Martha.

Jim put his hand on hers. "You're going to love Tampa."

Jim Davenport had never planned on moving to Tampa, or even Florida for that matter. Everything he knew about the state came from the "Best Places to Live in America" magazine that now sat on the Aerostar's dashboard. Right there on page seventeen, across from the feature on the joy of Vermont's covered bridges, was the now famous annual ranking of the finest cities in the U.S. of A. to raise a family. And coming in at number three with a bullet — just below Seattle and San Francisco — was the shocker on the list. Rocketing up from last year's 497th position: Tampa, Florida. When the magazine hit the stands, champagne corks flew in the Chamber of Commerce. The mayor called a press conference, and the city quickly threw together a band and fireworks show at the riverfront park; the news was so big it even caused some people to get laid.

Nobody knew it was all a mistake. The magazine had recently been acquired by a German media conglomerate, which purchased the latest spelling and grammar-check software and dismissed its editors and writers, replacing them with distracted high school students in Walkman headsets. The tabular charts on the new software had baffled a student with green hair, who inadvertently moved all of Tampa's crime statistics a decimal point to the left.

Jim and Martha Davenport were a perfect match. She had long, flowing red hair and the patience of a firecracker. He had selective hearing.

Martha was forty-two, a year older than Jim, five-six with large hips but the perfect weight. Her lips were full, and she unconsciously favored shades of lipstick that matched her hair and freckles. Jim was five-ten with a curious physique. His frame was narrow, except for the shoulders, which were spread and bony, and he required big suits that hung all over him like a Talking Heads video.

Martha drove past the Ocala exit and checked on the kids in the rearview. Debbie was working on her sulk. Melvin wore thick glasses and read a science book, how to make a compass with a glass of water and a sewing needle. Nicole leaned forward in her safety seat, discovering her toes.

Martha set cruise control on seventy in the far right lane. They began to enter the gravitational field of Tampa Bay. An electric-lime bullet bike shot past on the left. Another ninja bike flew by on the right, in the breakdown lane, followed by a speeding red convertible full of shirtless, tattooed rocket scientists.

Martha watched them accelerate and disappear. "They endangered our family! If I had a gun —"

"That's why you don't have a gun."

"Can we get a Suburban?"

"You know how much they cost."

"They have more armor to protect the kids. Look how the people drive here."

An Eagle Talon raced by on the right, cutting across the minivan with inches to spare. Martha hit the brakes.

"What kind of a place are we moving to?"

Jim grabbed the magazine off the dash. "Great weather, sandy beaches, beautiful state parks, historic Latin quarter, barely perceptible crime rate ..."

They reached the city an hour before sunset. The moving van wasn't due until morning, so they had to put up. Martha drove slowly, hunched over the wheel, scanning roadside motel signs. Econo, Budget, Value, Thrift-Rite, El Rancho.

They rolled through an intersection, the gas stations on all four corners boarded up with squatters in lawn chairs selling velvet paintings, country music lawn statuary, counterfeit Beanie Babies and slightly fresh seafood. Outside a pawnshop, a homeless man and a woman in a leopard miniskirt wrestled over a VCR.

"Doesn't look safe."

Jim pointed. "There's a Motel 9."

"I don't know."

"It's a big chain," he said. "They're not going to let anything happen to us."

The Davenports checked in and unpacked. A half hour later, Jim and Martha strolled onto their second-floor motel balcony.

"See? It's beautiful!" said Jim, and they held hands and watched the sun set behind the Starvin' Marvin.

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