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Facedown in Florida

Paul Reyes delves into the human side of the housing crisis; C.D. Wright peels back bygone racial turmoil.

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It's easy now, a few years on, to forget how sensible it appeared in the middle of the aughts to leverage yourself to the hilt in order to buy a home. In south Florida, where I lived from 2003 to 2006, wages were stagnant while housing prices swelled unfettered as ego. Hard work was for suckers in an era of zero percent down. In 2004 a reporter friend of mine laid down $199,000 — every dime of which was borrowed — for a three-bedroom house in Fort Lauderdale, made his mortgage payments for a little more than a year and in 2006, with the bubble still going strong, sold the joint for a cool $290,000. That he would take the money and run to rent a townhouse was a contrarian bit of prescience on his part. He explained to me at the time, "I just didn't think there was any way my house was worth that much."

Turned out he was right, and the buyer later went into foreclosure after failing to sell the house for $360,000. But my friend, and surely thousands of other homebuyers, managed to hit the sweet spot, or enough of it, to win in this overheated game of musical chairs. They bought low, sold higher and got out. Along the way they did their small part to court the demise of the global economy.

But these weren't junk bonds they were buying but homes, which bring with them a mythology and romance that make homebuying, in part, an irrational act. When the foreclosures came, it was houses, not just balance sheets, that were vacated. Understanding the meltdown requires that we account for the emotions of home. In that regard, Paul Reyes' narrative "Exiles in Eden: Life Among the Ruins of Florida's Great Recession" (Henry Holt and Co., hardcover, $25) stands as an essential component of explaining the last decade, often in achingly human terms. "Home ownership," he writes, "became a self perpetuating addiction: As more people qualified to own a home, more people wanted one, and as the demand for homes increased, so did the price."

In his first book, Reyes — an erstwhile Oxford American editor and a Little Rock homeowner (and in disclosure, a friend) — has laid out the mortgage meltdown not from the view of Wall Street or Capitol Hill, but in the melancholy aftermath of the apocalypse: He is Mad Max as forensic investigator. His entry point is a job that I didn't even know existed before reading the Harper's Magazine story (a finalist for a National Magazine Award) that germinated the book: helping his Cuban-born father, Jose, clean foreclosed homes ("trash out" the places, in the parlance) around Tampa, Fla., so banks could resell them after the fall.

Journalists are often archaeologists of the present, and in this charge, Reyes brings a detective's discernment to the emotional lives of abandoned things, as well as a pickpocket's elegance to his wordcraft. Where Reyes the reporter — and, to strong effect, memoirist — reaches beyond journalism, he ventures into literature's mission of explaining human motive. Why would people invest in overpriced real estate? Well, once upon a time, his parents did just that. Reyes' father, who in this book plays both muse and foil for the author, bought land in the state's Jurassic interior — on his honeymoon, no less. The culture and land we've inherited was, at one time, for almost all of us, parcel to a hustle. That goes double for Floridians.

Reyes plays interrogator and witness to the culprits and victims of this surround-sound Ponzi scheme. When they leave behind flea-infested yards, scribbled-in Bibles and baby pictures, he sympathizes with their failures. Never does he blame them for trying. No one would have followed the numbers if they hadn't promised a life in the sun. As an old salesman tells Reyes, "For fifty years there's been this steady flow, the economy be damned."

Sam Eifling

C.D. Wright's "One With Others"

The topic of racism is inescapable, and it can be tiring to hear the word dragged into an argument or wielded with propagandistic purposes. But the existence of such a powerful prejudice has been, and continues to be, one of the most enduring themes of Southern literature. The issue of race allows plenty to be examined, both about society and individuals, and it has left behind a history that most of us agree is not worth repeating; part of that history is the subject of Arkansas-born poet C.D. Wright's newest publication, "One With Others" (Copper Canyon Press, hardcover, $20).

Wright, who teaches writing at Brown University and is a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, grew up in Mountain Home. She returned to her home state to receive an MFA from the University of Arkansas in 1976. Her poetry frequently reflects the places she has lived, and this newest book follows suit, contemplating a grim event in Arkansas's civil rights history — the racial turbulence surrounding a march by black citizens in the aftermath of Martin Luther King's death, and the fate of a single white woman, nicknamed V, who joined the march.

A prose poem, "One With Others" is a winding narrative that Wright refers to in the beginning as a "welter of associations." It is, in fact, something of a piece of journalism: a good deal of the poem is presented as interviews with students, neighbors, and other townspeople. Gruesome examples of racism, both from the specific event being examined and other contemporary instances that were appearing in the news, make Wright's work an agitated one, stormy with the implications of a period in our history that are still with us today.

Being such a long poem, it is heavily thematic. Pieces of it could be quoted here, but the strength of the writing relies upon the gradual layering of context, the addition of elements to the collage of recollections. We see school days at the white and the black high school, snippets of other news stories from the time, the unfolding biography of V.

The pace speeds up and slows down, sometimes jumping down the page in a flash of images and sometimes going patiently along with the suspense of a news ticker. All the way through it retains an elegantly journalistic voice. The descriptions go back and forth from solid to abstract, an inconsistency that reminds the reader that this poem is drawn from the memories of many different people.

Following all its glances at the past, "One With Others" ends with an unsurprisingly modern revelation. Having become such a political buzzword, the concept of "racism" seems scarily anachronistic; perhaps it needs the subtlety of literature to bring it back to something real. Wright seems to think so, and she's steering in the right direction.

Bernard Reed

More new releases: Michael Takiff's oral history "A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him" (Yale University Press, hardcover, $32) hits bookstores on Oct. 19. The University of Arkansas Press recently published "Defining Moments: Historic Decisions by Arkansas Governors from McMath Through Huckabee" ($19.95, soft cover) by Robert Brown, and "White Man's Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894-1909" ($34.95, hardcover) by Kimberly Harper. Little Rock native Jennifer Horne, who currently lives in Alabama, has a new book of poetry, "The Bottle Tree" (WordTech Communications, $20, paperback). And Hendrix College's Shin Yu Pai recently published her seventh book of poetry, "Adamantine" (White Pine Press, $16, paperback).


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