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Cuban rhythms

King Bongo: A Novel of Havana, Thomas Sanchez, Alfred A. Knopf: 310 pp., $25

May 18, 2003|Michael Harris | Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review.

Divide the reputation of a book by the number of people who have actually perused its pages, and you arrive at what might be called the "Moby-Dick" ratio -- the curse of the critically acclaimed author whom nobody seems to have read. It doesn't help when the book itself is as weighty as the reputation. Thomas Sanchez's "Rabbit Boss" and "Mile Zero" are viewed, in some circles at least, as masterpieces of American fiction. The French have named Sanchez a chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres. But we Americans, who tend to like big books only if they're Styrofoam-light, like movie-set boulders, have declined to do the heavier lifting required.

It's no wonder, then, that Sanchez has opted to make his new novel, "King Bongo," a little more user-friendly. It's short. It's fast. It's a thriller. It's sexy and violent and set in an exotic locale -- Havana, Cuba, in 1957, when Fidel Castro and his rebels are still "bearded boy[s]" up in the mountains. It has cartoonish characters with nicknames -- the Bad Actor, Johnny PayDay, the Panther, Leaping Larry Lizard. Though its plot is convoluted, the narration is as propulsive as the Gulf Stream.

Does this mean that the Sanchez who startled and awed us with the opening chapter of "Rabbit Boss" -- in which Sierra natives see members of the Donner Party eating one another and wonder, with justified foreboding, what kind of people these white savages must be -- has given up, sold out, gone commercial? Not really. "King Bongo" uses the conventions of the thriller, mixed with a little magical realism and a lot of parody, to approach serious issues from a different angle.

The title character is the classic uncommitted man who is forced to choose sides. King Bongo is half American, half Cuban, a skilled musician with "a natural rhythm drumming in his blood ... like a guy poised high up on a tightrope while the earth spun out of control below." He's a ladies' man who avoids marriage, an insurance salesman who capitalizes on other people's disasters.

Bongo has white skin, but his sister, the Panther, the top showgirl at the mob-run Tropicana casino, is black. When they were children, their father played bongo rhythms on their shaven heads, chanting: "The Bongo has two heads, man and woman, hate and love, war and peace! Those heads are always at odds! The Bongo is the same drum!" The mismatched siblings, like the two-headed drum, stand for Cuba itself: rich culture and political repression, racial mixing and segregation, Havana's colonial mansions built on the profits of slavery in the sugar-cane fields.

On New Year's Eve, Bongo is visiting the Tropicana in hopes of selling a policy to its owners when a bomb explodes, killing one of his girlfriends. In the confused aftermath, his sister disappears. Bongo isn't the only one desperate to find her. Capt. Humberto Zapata of dictator Fulgencio Batista's secret police also loves the Panther; he rescued her from a flood when she was a child and has obsessively driven off or killed her other suitors.

Meanwhile, the rebels are plotting to assassinate Batista as the dictator sits in a reviewing stand of a car race along the Malecon, Havana's harborside drive. He will be shot by a sniper -- Sweet Maria, who doubles as a hotel maid and as a bar girl/boy at a rough-trade bar called the Three Virgins. But there's a counterplot. The mob, aware of the assassination plan, wants to protect its casino investments by preventing a Communist takeover. The local kingpin, Lizard, has brought in a hit man, PayDay, to shoot the shooter and win Batista's gratitude.

There's even a counter-counterplot, orchestrated by the Bad Actor, an aging Hollywood star who lets Batista fondle his teenage mistress but also bankrolls the rebels. He tries to seduce PayDay's ditzy wife -- who deflects questions by quoting the inane lyrics of show tunes -- to learn the mob's intentions. Lizard takes a dim view of this, realizing that the Bad Actor's glory days were soon to end: "The Right Guys had found out he was betting all four corners of the table. No one gets away with that unless he owns the table."

Bongo's search for the Panther leads him to Havana's central square, where a shoeshine man is privy to every rumor; to a Chinese orchid fancier, Mr. Wu, whose laundry empire keeps tabs on everyone's underwear; to race driver Guy Armstrong, a habitue of the Three Virgins whose blond, beautiful, icy wife, Elizabeth, is playing perhaps Havana's deadliest game; to the Blue Mansion, where Zapata tortures Batista's enemies; and to the Pineapple Field, where he dumps their mutilated bodies.

But the answers Bongo seeks are to be found in the muddy, disease-ridden slum where he grew up. Revolution, Sanchez makes us conclude, was justified, even inevitable, no matter how badly it turned out.


From 'King Bongo'

She crossed her long legs. ... 'Tell me, exactly what line of business are you in?'

'I'm, uh, an insurance salesman, an insurance adjuster, an insurance investigator. Property, fire, theft, accident.'

'You must be very successful. The roads of Cuba are simply murderous. You can make a tidy living on auto accidents alone. There are more automobile accidents per capita in Cuba than in any other place in the world. People are just crazy on these roads.'

'You're very knowledgable about the conditions of our roads and drivers.'

'I have to be. I'm paying a fortune to insure my three cars here. More than I pay for my five cars in Newport.'

'Let's just say that in Cuba driving is considered a sport.'

'A blood sport .... '

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