Lee Smith’s Ode to Key West in “Silver Alert”

Lee Smith, the doyenne of quirky, believable Southern heroines, does it again with her newest novel, Silver Alert, a mash-up of old timers meeting young dreamers that takes the reader on a ride through the Sunshine State down to its Southernmost city, Key West. Few cities in the South are so venerated by Southerners that merely speaking their name evokes recognition and perhaps a longing to be in that place immediately. Key West is one of those cities, and is a place Smith has been visiting since she was thirteen years old. She beautifully captures the allure of this small city 100 miles south of Miami with its shimmering water, the long, sleek bridges linking the Keys, and sunsets at the end of Duval Street. Smith actually got the idea for this novel from a Silver Alert she saw while driving down to the Keys — an elderly Miami man and his secretary had disappeared. If you haven’t spent much time in Florida, you may not know that Silver Alert is a term used to signal that an elderly person has gone missing — Florida highway alerts show license plate numbers for these persons so other citizens can be on the lookout for them.

Smith throws us right into the messy, complicated world of the novel’s main characters, Herbert Atlas, age 83, and Dee Dee Mullins, age 23. Herb Atlas is a wealthy, retired businessman with health problems he keeps ignoring while managing the care of his third wife, Susan. Herb was devastated at Susan’s diagnosis of early onset dementia at age 57, and watches as she slowly declines now, 10 years later. Herb and Susan’s children from previous marriages have gotten together and staged an intervention, insisting that Herb and Susan move to an assisted living facility up north in Del Ray Beach. Herb feels he is doing a good job of caring for Susan in Key West and is adamantly opposed to the move.

Enter Renee, an esthetician initially sent over to do Susan’s nails who quickly ends up being one of the few people who can manage Susan’s moods. We learn that Renee is keeping a low profile in Key West after a childhood of loss, abuse, and a drug problem paid for with sex work. Her real name is Dee Dee Mullins, and she’s originally from a family of old-time musicians in Black Mountain, North Carolina. She’s clean now, living with her friend, Tamika, whom she met in rehab. They are dreaming of a trip to Disney World to see the princesses.

Smith takes her time revealing the details of both Herb and Dee Dee’s lives, leading up to the point where Herb knows it is inevitable that his health is failing, and that he and Susan will be sent to assisted living against his will. He begins to grudgingly accept he is no longer in sole charge of his own destiny. On the day that Herb’s house is being packed up for the move, he offers to drive Dee Dee home in his vintage yellow Porsche that nobody knows he still has a key for. Dee Dee accepts. The ride home turns into an extended road trip up through the Keys and north, heading towards Orlando and the Disney princesses Dee Dee has always wanted to see.                                 

Smith deftly weaves the messy lives of her characters together. The juxtaposition of Dee Dee — young, naive, and just learning how to live independently — with Herb is particularly compelling. Dee Dee, who has been exploited and used badly by a stepfather who was supposed to protect her, must learn to stand up for herself and make difficult life decisions, while Herb has to learn to accept his physical limitations and let others help him.

Silver Alert reminds us that at every age, humans are tasked with making difficult life choices. Sometimes we have all the information we need to make the choice — Herb knows on some level that Susan needs a higher level of care and that he must take better care of himself. And sometimes, like Dee Dee, we are young or naive or too trusting, and the choices we make can lead to serious, unintended consequences. Readers are reminded that sometimes the people who show up to help us along the way make our lives richer in ways that we least expect.

Silver Alert
By Lee Smith
Algonquin Books
Published April 18, 2023