As the Korean War grinds to a halt, 25-year-old deserter Philip Narby is hiding out in Havana, Cuba. He’s got mysterious scars, a grueling drug addiction, and a memory wiped clear of family or friends from before his overseas sojourn.
While smuggling himself and a stash of illegal cash into southern Florida, Narby meets Ernesto Campos, a serious young Cuban with connections to the nascent movement of Fidel Castro. The two develop a tenuous friendship that Narby is convinced entails some governmental providence — Narby believes he is being sent on a mission to influence Cuba away from Communism. The Campos-Narby friendship spans the course of Narby’s decade-long misadventures in the mid-century development boom on Miami Beach and the mainland stretch of Florida’s coastal real estate.
In David H. Weisberg’s historical novel The American Plan, south Florida is a character unto itself. The swampy property Narby initially purchases outside the small and segregated town of Myerton gives the reader a glimpse of what the Sunshine State was before developers arrived. Developers like Sid Black, Narby’s old acquaintance from Korea.
Black used Narby to smuggle money into Cuba — tens of thousands Black made selling in-demand products to military personnel via his own black market. At the novel’s start, Narby assumes Black has died in the war and starts skimming money from the account set up for him. When the two run into each other on Miami Beach, Narby fears retribution. But Black instead proposes a business offer — agree to join a corporation front, buy hundreds of acres, and then sell them at a loss to Black’s development firm.
Throughout his deepening entanglement with an array of shady business figures, Narby becomes romantically entwined with Willa Branton, a 34-year-old artist who spends half the year on the expensive and reclusive island of Sanmora. Their relationship is destined for demise, but Narby seems perpetually unable to anticipate his own downfall.
He doesn’t fit in anywhere — not in the rampantly racist southern small towns, not with the exclusive Sanmora yacht crowd, not with the ruthless hotel developers hustling Miami Beach’s constant reinvention, not amongst the jazz-lovers in segregated Overtown. Narby emerges from war a deeply disturbed and unmoored young man, his memory loss a frank metaphor for the impossibility of remembering — of returning to — life before Korea.
As a protagonist, he is unapologetically difficult to like. Narby’s drug addiction takes up an inordinate amount of time and money, not to mention mental space for both himself and the reader. He seems driven only by survival, never truly connecting to the people around him, as liable to harm them as he is to help them. Narby decides between compassion and cruelty on a series of whims.
Female characters are almost exclusively judged based on Narby’s assessment of their sexual desirability. Willa is interesting for her sexual liberation, but she is underdeveloped as a stand alone character. We see her only through the hungry eyes of Narby, whose grasp of Willa beyond sexual satisfaction never moves past inchoate. 1950s America is a frightfully sexist place, and to see a character so disgusted by the South’s racism roam about comfortably in its pervasive objectification of women is frankly disappointing. It raises the question — if Narby sees the wrong in judging his fellow southerners based on race, why is he thoughtlessly reducing women to boxes marked “sexy” or “old/overweight/ugly”?
But Narby’s shortcomings don’t make the story Weisberg creates any less gripping. The American Plan is a consummate page-turner, difficult to put down as it follows the seismic economic and political changes rocking post-WWII America. And with two more novels planned in this trilogy of Florida’s rise and fall, taking the characters right through to the 2008 economic crisis, there will be more for fans of Weisberg’s clear gift with crafting intricate plot lines and vivid, inimitable settings for his characters to inhabit. You can count me amongst those looking forward to the next installment.