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Book Review

Crime-Story Hero Navigates Through Worlds of the Sleazy and Decent

OUTCAST By Jose Latour; William Morrow $24, 304 pages

February 20, 2001|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

We read Cuban crime writer Jose Latour's seventh novel--and his first in English--in wonderment. Latour still lives in Havana, and it's no surprise that he can describe a socialist paradise fallen on hard times: blackouts, shortages, rationing, "the oldest cars in the world that are still running." But how can he write with such insight and ease about the contemporary United States?

Latour's hero, the "outcast" of the title, is Elliot Steil, who teaches English at a high school in Havana. He's an amiable drunk, scholar and womanizer, denied promotion because of his politically suspect background. His father was an American sugar refinery worker who abandoned the family when Steil was a boy. His career is going nowhere, but he loves Cuba--"race relations were harmonious, the lifestyle easygoing and romantic, the women beautiful, the climate great"--and has no plans to leave.

Suddenly, though, an American named Dan Gastler appears, claiming to be a friend of Steil's dead father and offering to sneak Steil off the island in his yacht. Steil is just fed up enough with shabbiness and political repression to agree. Halfway to Florida, they are drinking and celebrating when Gastler shoves Steil overboard and sails away.

Steil is rescued by a Cuban family paddling north on a raft big enough to hold him, too. In Miami, he undergoes a change. He wants revenge on Gastler and answers to a lot of questions about his dad. He discovers in himself an aptitude for lying and a mercenary streak that leads him to work in car-theft and smuggling rings to finance his vendetta.

Meanwhile, Latour lets us read the diary of one of the rafters, Fidelia, whose husband deserts her once they land in Florida. She has parents and a young son to support, and can find work only as a secretary, though she was a lawyer in Cuba. She admits that communism can't compete even as she deplores the money madness of America. She falls in love with Steil, mainly because he's so mysterious and evasive.

This is just one of the ways in which Latour, who is vice president of the Latin American division of the International Assn. of Crime Writers, gives us more than we expect from the genre. We learn not only about the sleazy side of the Cuban immigrant experience but, with comparable detail, about the efforts of ordinary, decent people to get a foothold on these shores.

Even the bad guys Steil deals with are unexpectedly complicated. Some, in fact, are pretty good guys, like Tony Soto, a former student of Steil's, now a Miami cop; and Soto's sometime partner, 75-year-old Ruben Scheindlin, who has millions already but continues to connive and smuggle so he can stay interested in living.

Steil's search for Gastler takes him to Louisiana, whose Cajun subculture Latour seems to know as well as he knows Miami. While there, Steil learns that his father led a second life.

If "Outcast" has a weakness, it's the way in which Steil--who never really stops being a nice guy and a civilian--has to prove capable of mixing it up with seasoned thugs and coming out ahead. This is something we often encounter in thrillers and in mystery novels, and it never quite convinces.

The strengths of Latour's story, though, are considerable. It's hard to think of another book that's so knowledgeable about the contrasts between the United States and Cuba and so fair-minded about the dilemmas of people caught in the middle. "Outcast" is warm, human, often funny and consistently interesting--a fast, rich read.

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