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South of Eden

Paul Reyes's highly personal take on the residential real estate crash in Florida.

By From the November 2010 issue

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Exiles in Eden: Life Among the Ruins of Florida's Great Recession
By Paul Reyes
(Henry Holt, 272 Pages, $25)

Booksellers will have difficulty deciding where to shelve Paul Reyes's highly personal take on the residential real estate crash in Florida. It's part business book, part memoir and history, the best sections of which are in a style close to that of a novel. It might be called New Journalism, though that form is hardly new now and Paul Reyes is a long way short of Tom Wolfe.

The title is no help. While most Floridians are from elsewhere, they're hardly exiles. I've lived 60 of my 67 years in Florida, and while the Sunshine State has manifold and obvious charms, no one not institutionalized has ever confused it with Eden (especially between May and October -- it's not a dry heat). And Reyes doesn't locate Florida's prelapsarian period.

The business book portions of Exiles are its thinnest, and its weakest. Readers wishing to understand or parse blame for the housing crash and the agony in its wake will find little here that hasn't been better analyzed elsewhere. This is a literary take by the former editor at large of the Oxford American and contributor to other literary journals.

Reyes earned an MFA from the University of Florida in 1997. And he's prone to the febrile prose this degree often brings with it. Reyes's description below of being in a foreclosed house suggests a lit major who overdosed on Faulkner and never quite got over it:

Inside, amidst the rot, the brevity of human life is juxtaposed against geological time, against the pace and breadth of what surrounds us.

A sound and fury interrupted. In that rot, in the inevitable inexorable encroachment of the forces a house was designed to keep out, lies to slow, mute power of death, of time, of God.

Reyes touches on policy between literary riffs and profiles. The usual suspects have walk-ons: easy money and mortgage-backed securities that people on Wall Street didn't fully understand, even as these became highly profitable. But he mostly ignores the huge political playpens and slush funds hiding behind the cuddly names of Fannie and Freddie, through which politicians leaned on regulators to lean on banks to make mortgage loans to people with no real prospect of paying for them, or in many cases even understanding them. Rather than meddling politicians, Reyes aims blame at investors "who demanded more mortgages to trade," and lenders who "took greater risks in providing them."

This colossal failure of common sense, with some political perfidy thrown in, led to the overheated residential market of the early 2000s and the hard crash of 2008, resulting in almost operatic loss and heartache. "An economic cleansing fire," Reyes calls it.

Florida was hit harder than most states, and though foreclosures have lately slowed somewhat, there were 277,073 foreclosures filings in Florida during the first half of 2010, up 3 percent over the first half of 2009.

BUT THE BIG PICTURE with its charts and graphs isn't Reyes's beat. The book's value lies in the intimate portraits of individual Floridians who've lost their homes. Portraits Reyes cobbled together working for his father "trashing out"-emptying and cleaning-foreclosed homes now owned by banks, mostly in Tampa.

This work involves scrubbing linoleum, bleaching toilets, scraping mold, cleaning pet leavings, and spraying for fleas. It also involves removing what former owners leave behind. This includes a lot of junk and way too much rancid carpet. But also books, bills, photos, letters, clothes, jewelry, family Bibles, and other personal effects only desperate or despondent people would abandon. People whose American dream has taken a serious knock.

Reyes, woolgathering while the rest of Dad's crew is working, constructs narratives from the artifacts left behind and from the interviews he was later able to hold with former homeowners. Through these he reveals the flesh and blood individuality behind those soulless numbers in the business stories about the crash.

It would take a heart of stone not to be moved by these up-close and personal stories. They add a dimension to readers' understanding of this American and Floridian tragedy. It also takes patience as Reyes's descriptions often endure at eye-glazing length. Patience is also required for his interviews with ancillary real estate players, whose analysis rarely rises above the level of "mortgage brokers and bankers are creeps."

It's clear from Reyes's portraits that some former homeowners had no clue what their mortgages obligated them for, especially that their monthly payments might increase. Some were doubtless easy marks for mortgage brokers and bankers who knew they were making bad loans. But banks were under intense political pressure to provide mortgage loans to anyone with a pulse (see Barney Frank). And thanks to new rules, these loans weren't staying on the banks' books. They were headed to Wall Street to emerge after a night on the town as part of a package of mortgage-backed securities, an investment category looked over by rating agencies whose verdicts on these dodgy instruments seemed to begin and end at AAA. (Real estate can lose value? Who knew?)

MANY OF REYES'S trashing-out portraits in Exiles appeared in long articles he wrote for Harper's and the New York Times. The matter probably should have ended there. There's some good reporting in the profiles. But the rest of Reyes's book is vaguely leftist skylarking or material that has appeared elsewhere, such as Reyes's history of Florida real estate booms and busts, some orchestrated by hustlers Barnum would have loved. This material, while mostly accurate and sometimes entertaining, is well known.

The most problematic part of Exiles is the 50-page diversion detailing the peccadilloes of Miami activist Max Rameau, whose game is getting homeless people to move illegally into foreclosed homes on the theory that everyone has a right to housing, then getting maximum publicity from the stunt. Rameau is radical enough and skilled enough at attracting television cameras that Michael Moore's outfit showed up for the fun. Reyes never endorses Rameau's approach. But the sheer heft of his treatment, a fifth of the book, implies sympathy. As does his language, when he refers to a home Rameau's group has taken over as having been "liberated."

Reyes declares his politics overtly in a homey scene from election night '08 when he and his dad, an engineer, entrepreneur, and thoroughly practical man, watch the presidential returns together. Dad is appalled by Obama, calling him "Jimmy Carter number two." Young Reyes gloats his approval of the voters' choice. "It's beautiful," he croons.

"Just wait," says Senior. "You were a little baby when I was paying eighteen percent and gas lines were two blocks long. Just wait."

Reyes's portraits are well crafted and affecting. But some readers may wish to wait until Reyes senior writes a book.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.