DG MARTIN COLUMN: Has Lee Smith deserted us for Florida?

Published 11:05 am Monday, June 5, 2023

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Has Lee Smith, perhaps North Carolina’s most beloved writer, moved to Florida?


D.G. Martin

But it is a fair question because after “On Agate Hill” in 2006, Smith’s latest two major works of fiction have been set largely in Florida, mostly in Key West.

First, there was Smith’s short novel, “Blue Marlin” published in 2020 and inspired by her real trip to Key West with her parents.
Then there is her latest, “Silver Alert: A Novel,” published in April, which is full of quirky characters like those Smith’s fans treasure.
The story revolves around Herbert Atlas, a wealthy retired businessman, and Renee (real name Dee Dee), a manicurist who is new on the scene. She quickly becomes essential because she is the only one who can calm Herb’s third wife, Susan, from her many violent episodes. Once beautiful, active, and glamorous, Susan has slipped into early onset dementia.

Dee Dee grew up in North Carolina, was abused as a child, and has fallen into trouble everywhere she turned.

Other characters include William, a well-born aspiring poet and graduate student who is living in Key West temporarily trying to find himself. He meets Dee Dee in a laundromat, learns from her how to operate a washing machine, and becomes her love interest.
Tamika, is Dee Dee’s best friend and deals with a bag full of trouble every day.

Paula is Tamika’s and Dee Dee’s counselor from a time when they were in a sex-victim recovery program.

Pat Devine, a partner of one of Herb’s daughters, is tough and organized. She takes care of the family’s many problems.

Dr. Abe, a psychiatrist, is Herb’s son-in-law and not someone Herb likes.

Lee Smith says she hated to finish writing this book because she loved the characters so much.

As the story opens, Herb’s devotion to Susan is complete, notwithstanding her disturbing actions. But some family members think it’s time for her to get professional care in an institution.
Meanwhile Herb’s inattention to his health points to an early demise. When he finally visits a doctor, a nurse checks him in. “So, what has finally brought you in to see us?”

“Urine,” Herb replies.” Getting up all night. Running behind a potted plant at the mall. I’ve got a personal knowledge of every damn restroom and potted plant in Key West. Nobody ever told me that this was gonna happen.”

When asked if he had other issues such as pain or burning, leaking during urination or blood in the urine? He says, “I am guilty for all of the above.”

Then she asks, “Erectile dysfunction?”

Herb answers, “Are you kidding me, honey? I’m eighty-three years old, I weigh two hundred and thirty-five pounds, of course I’ve got erectile dysfunction.”

When the nurse says he should have come in earlier, he responds, “For my age, I’m doing fine. I’ve lived for eighty-three years, I’m playing with house money now.”

After Dr. Abe leads a family intervention, Susan is sent to “the Arbor, a special unit for advanced Alzheimer’s patients” and Herb will be in a luxurious home in the same development.

Before Herb moves to his new home, Dee Dee comes by for a final visit. Herb shows her his beloved Porsche.

“I bought it for Susan, my bride. I used to drive her all around town in it, she’d wear a scarf and I’d wear my Panama hat, she waved at everybody. Everybody. And they waved back.”

He persuades Dee Dee to take a short drive in his favorite car, a Porsche which has been locked up for years. The short drive turns in to a long drive that takes them all over the Keys and the southern part of Florida.

They drive and drive until the story peaks they look up and see a flashing


Now we know where the book’s title comes from, and the story, a truly great read, comes to a dramatic end.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”