"In the summer of 1989, Gabriel Garcia Marquez offered a script-writing workshop to ten students at the International School of Film and Television in San Antonio de los Banos, Cuba. I was his assistant." So opens the preface of the first novel to be published in English by the award-winning Cuban writer Eliseo Alberto. In the course of the workshop, Alberto recounts, the members of the group told story after story, the most memorable of which featured an assailant who was variously a born killer, an alcoholic, a tiger hunter or (in Garcia Marquez's version) "a psychotic veteran who had the names of his own private dead tattooed on his left arm."
Seven years later, Alberto mixed the remembered tales of the workshop with a prayer to the Afro-Cuban god Babalu and created the golem of "Caracol Beach." And yet, unlike the Frankenstein monsters of legend that are tinkered from a junkyard full of castoff parts yet endowed with personalities peculiarly their own, "Caracol Beach" remains, from beginning to end, a scrap heap of dented fenders sans engine, sans magic, sans any understanding of what makes the writing of Alberto's master tick.
The parts are relatively easy to list: one Florida resort town, Caracol Beach; one high school graduation, that of Emerson Institute; one assailant, a crazed Cuban veteran of the war in Angola; one cop, the Puerto Rican Sam Ramos, who has himself seen combat in Africa and, to his disgrace and sadness, possesses a transvestite son who has decided to rename himself Mandy. A quintet of high school chums, led by the athlete Tom and the exquisite cheerleader Laura Fontanet, decides--in best Tobe Hooper Chainsaw style--to head down to the beach house of the class valedictorian to celebrate graduation.
When the beer runs out, Tom and Laura and Martin, the valedictorian, head out into the night. Little do they know (cue the raspy cello ostinato) that the crazed veteran, Beto Milanes, is wandering the streets, trying to escape the watchful eye of a Bengal tiger that has haunted him for 17 years, all the way from Africa, where he saw his six compadres massacred in an ambush. Or that a drunken Texan is out on the same streets seeking vengeance for a beating at the hands of miniskirted Mandy, or that nosy Mrs. Dickinson has called the cops but that Ramos, the police chief, is nursing a sore jaw, punched by the Armenian kimono-designing lover of his son Mandy. Needless to say, something goes terribly wrong.
Thanks to Alberto's style, we find out just how wrong relatively early on. In fact, the whole cast is so stylish, and the whole style so overcast with time shifts and narrative giveaways, that the mob seems more David Lynch than Hooper, although the novel is devoid of the music that made "Blue Velvet" such a stunning masterpiece of the end of innocence. There is neither thrill, nor punch, nor beauty to Alberto's writing, only the randomness of a carelessly shuffled pinochle deck, a few cards short.
Sentences that sound like they've been purloined from the cellars of Garcia Marquez occasionally show up on the table. "The last raindrop of the storm fell on the head of a buzzard flying about 120 feet above Santa Fe, Florida, rolled down the furrow between its eyes and was pulled by gravity from its beak, and dropped at a thirty-degree angle into the courtyard of the Emerson Institute where it hit the bull's-eye between the breasts of the cheerleader Laura Fontanet." And well it might. Alberto has the good fortune of boasting Garcia Marquez's latest translator, Edith Grossman, with her ear for rhythm and mind for the exact word. And yet, taken piecemeal, as these sentences appear, one suspects that, if Harry's Bar ever decides to open a branch on the ramparts of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast of Colombia and feature a Garcia Marquez parody contest, the way it has successfully skewered the prose of Hemingway and Faulkner, this sentence of Alberto's just might win the first first prize.
One even mourns for the image of the tiger (forever aligned with Cuba by G. Cabrera Infante) that haunts Beto. Alberto begins so well describing Beto's nighttime encounter with the feline: "Before he caught sight of it under the table, toying with a rat from the garbage dump, he had smelled its rank poppy-cream scent," but then ruins it with an excess, "like a whore's perfume floating in the dawn air," that makes a cliche of a wonderful moment when the reader wonders what exactly poppy-cream, and then rank poppy-cream, smells like.
Perhaps Alberto's quest to adapt fragments of others, to turn his work as assistant to the master, was doomed by definition. The Cuban masters of recent years--Infante and Reinaldo Arenas, whom Alberto so admires--have been fragment adapters as well. But they have so ingested the science of the writers who have come before them that they have been able to turn out compelling works of literature, each bearing the writer's own peculiar scent. And given a limited number of dawns, whose perfume would you rather have waft up at you from the printed page?