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Hitting bottom, bouncing back

The Havana Room; A Novel; Colin Harrison; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 400 pp., $24

January 11, 2004|Michael Harris | Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review.

Colin Harrison, like Peter Abrahams, writes suspense novels that are polished and literary. To read one of them -- his previous works include "Afterburn" and "Bodies Electric" -- is to plunge happily into a world of dead-on dialogue, fully realized characters and rare insight into how money and power distort American life. Harrison's latest, "The Havana Room," is no exception. The narrator, Manhattan corporate lawyer Bill Wyeth, fairly sings his tale of disaster, guilt and partial redemption. The beauty of his voice misleads us in interesting ways.

Wyeth speaks with a wry, sad detachment, the tone of a man who has learned his lessons. He comes home one night and finds himself accidentally, but truly, responsible for the death of an 8-year-old boy, a friend of his son, Timothy. The dead boy's father, a powerful client of Wyeth's firm, sublimates murderous rage into the slow but relentless destruction of Wyeth's career. Wyeth's wife divorces him, moves to California with Timothy and marries a dot.com near-billionaire. Depleting his savings, popping pills, Wyeth finds himself in a shabby apartment building populated equally by poor but gung-ho immigrants and losers like himself.

The first sign of an upward trajectory -- the bounce that comes after finally hitting bottom -- is Wyeth's interest in a 150-year-old steakhouse and its attractive manager, Allison Sparks. Spending much of his time at the restaurant, he notices that selected patrons are allowed now and then into a basement bar, the Havana Room, for secret revels of some kind. Curious, Wyeth asks to be admitted. But when Sparks finally takes him downstairs, it's to work at his former profession. She needs a lawyer to help a friend, Jay Rainey, consummate a mysterious midnight real estate deal with a Chilean vintner.

Wyeth, once known as a shark-like negotiator, discovers that his teeth are still sharp. He wins an extra $300,000 for Rainey -- but he also lands in a pile of new troubles. On the Long Island farm Rainey is trading for a Manhattan office building, an old African American laborer is found dead, frozen to a bulldozer in a snowstorm. The Chilean suspects that something toxic was being buried on the land. The dead man's family demands a settlement and puts pressure on Rainey and Wyeth through thugs hired by the flamboyant owner of a hip-hop club. Then there's the enigma of Rainey himself (whom Wyeth likes but wants to replace as Sparks' lover) -- his odd ebbs and surges of energy, his stalking of a 14-year-old English girl.

Only in the Havana Room, where the thugs' guns are hardly more deadly than the poisonous fish served up by Sparks' Chinese handyman, who claims to have cooked for Mao Tse-tung, can Wyeth find the answers to his questions -- about Rainey, about Sparks, about the Chilean's real plans, about the city's layered history of greed and, most of all, about himself.

Parental love turns out to be the key to Wyeth's comeback. At one point he claims to grasp the truth about "what might be necessary to hold on to one's child. You had to be a little crazy, you had to be insanely devoted to the idea of redemption. I felt my own frozen yearning crack apart; I needed to have Timothy back, I needed him like I needed air, and I would get him back, no matter what."

This love isn't just sentiment. There's something ruthless about it too, the will to beat death by sending your DNA spiraling down the generations. "The Havana Room" isn't "Regarding Henry," in which the Harrison Ford character renounces lawyering and morphs from shark into sheepdog. Though Wyeth knows he can never rid himself of guilt for the other boy's death, he sees just one way forward, a tough guy's way: to go back to the law, to get rich again, to be the winner he once was, only with a clearer motivation.

It's in this sense that the narrative voice misleads us for a while. Seduced by its grace and intelligence, its encyclopedic knowledge of everything from title searches to degenerative lung disease, we believe that Wyeth has learned the sort of lesson a literary person would learn from his fall -- that his previous values were wrong.

But Wyeth is a tough guy. He accepts that he's in a Darwinian struggle; to pretend otherwise, he concludes, is to lose without a fight. And he's determined not to lose again. As the novel climaxes in a tangle of lethal threats and unburied secrets, we come to like Wyeth a little less but believe in him all the more.

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