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King Bongo: A Novel of Havana Hardcover – April 22, 2003
This month's Book With Buzz: "Stranger in the House" by Shari Lapena
In this neighborhood, danger lies close to home. A thriller packed full of secrets and a twisty story that never stops - from the bestselling author of "The Couple Next Door." See more
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From Publishers Weekly
"We understand the economics of love," says Mrs. Armstrong, a sexy American socialite residing in Cuba. "To really sell a torch song, you've got to be willing to light yourself on fire." Like her, an entire gallery of wonderfully eccentric characters seems ready to go up in flames in this flamboyant noir epic by Sanchez (Mile Zero; Zoot-Suit Murders). It is 1957 in Havana, and glamorous, ambitious young insurance agent King Bongo ("he was a little man, but he had a big plan") is primed to sell a major policy to the owner of the legendary Tropicana nightclub. On New Year's Eve, he heads for the club, where his sister-the island's most glittery showgirl, known as the Panther-is performing. But before Bongo can do his business, a bomb goes off in front of the stage, and in the havoc the Panther disappears. To find her, Bongo must travel from colonial country clubs to squalid alleyways, challenged by sinister rivals like the nefarious Humberto Zapata, an official in the island's secret police force, and threatened by a constant undertone of seduction, violence and revolutionary stirrings. Sanchez's writing can evoke the hard-boiled masters of the past-he describes Havana's rows of houses, for example, as "old tarts posing for a group reunion shot in the glare of tropical sunlight"-though his stylings sometimes spin out of control ("Guys spilled the guts of their lies as beer foamed, whiskey flowed, rum drummed"). The occasional sloppiness aside, however, he succeeds in creating an independent world that is at once highly stylized and believable.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
*Starred Review* Havana in the '50s--a time of unrivaled corruption and decadence, when the nightclub lights were bright and the big-finned cars still shiny--has often served as the backdrop for fiction and film, but too often the city has functioned only as window dressing for neon-lit melodrama. That isn't the case here, as Sanchez digs deeper, using place as a conduit to meaning and emotion, just as he did with Key West in the hypnotic Mile Zero (1989). The action begins on New Year's Eve, 1957, when a bomb explodes at the Tropicana nightclub, presumably the work of revolutionaries. King Bongo, a legendary Havana drummer, who doubles as a private investigator and insurance salesman, narrowly escapes the blast, but his sister, the club's featured showgirl, called the Panther, disappears in the aftermath. His search for her takes him to all levels of Havana society--from the "scent of rank sweaty desperation" to the "look of well-fed cologne-slapped cheeks"--and involves him with Mafia hit men, fading movie stars, a mysterious American socialite, and the head of Cuba's secret police, long a nemesis. The Byzantine plot is neatly constructed and thoroughly involving but never an end in itself. Sanchez shows us a city and a people on the eve of revolution but filters it all through the emotions of a conflicted hero, sympathetic to the cause but loyal only to himself and those he loves. Havana is both setting and soul in this pulsing bolero of a novel. Bill Ott
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Top customer reviews
Five stars worth of tropical noir; what more could you ask for?
I just enjoyed reading KING BONGO, the third book that I have read by Sanchez. And once again I am deeply impressed by this talented writer. And again I have to ask myself what is it that I find so compelling about his stories. I ask myself, so that I can try to convey to potential readers why they too should read the book. Such an interesting story, set in Havana on the eve of Castro's revolution, but casting a dark shadow on all the characters. Sanchez feels the pulse of this glorious city, at this unique moment in its history. Somehow he puts it down on the written page so that you can feel it in your own pulse; such is the capability of this skillful communicator. Not only noir, but tropical noir makes Sanchez's fiction so compelling for afficionados such as myself. He reveals the truth that a life surrounded by bribery, poverty and tropical lies does not necessarily add up to an unhappy life.
But what lends his novel philosophical significance in my view however, is the way he is able to see Americans through the eyes of Cubans, rich and poor; and sometimes we might also glimpse how Cubans are seen though the eyes of Americans. Here we see two dissimilar melting pots on a collision course. Both multiracial, but with sharp differences, not only in sheer size. Here is where Sanchez scores. Those two distinct melting pots will not conjoin to form one bigger melting pot. Their moral values are so fundamentally different, and Sanchez explores the intricacies of this particular fault-line. He highlights the different social classes, and contrasts colorful Cuban daily life with the segregation mentality so prevalent in America of the fifties. Racial tolerance and interracial mixing of Cubans, all color shades blending seamlessly, with their unselfconscious lifestyle, dancing to the rhythms of their own music, unfazed by the false call of revolution; all this conveys an attractive society.
The hero of the novel, whose title the book bears, somehow seems to straddle both cultures, American and Cuban, black and white. Bongo is pulled in opposite directions at every encounter, not least because he too is a product of a black Cuban mother and a white father. Tension shows, and the resulting complex personality makes for a more interesting storyline with greater artistic truth. Sanchez explores this angle with dexterity, cutting across all social, political and economic divides.
White skinned King Bongo and his tar-skinned sister, like complementary twins, rise from poverty, exploiting their native talents. Their loves, lives, and fates are entwined against a backdrop of African Cuban native religion, Spanish colonial heritage, American consumerism, and Marxist revolutionary fervor, all sweltering in the tropical heat of Havana.
Sanchez offers a credible take on the jaundiced view that Cubans have of Americans living in their country. Americans in their view, practice hedonistic materialism, looking down their patrician noses upon this tropical paradise just off the tip of Florida. Always wanting to possess it and own it, but somehow always thwarted, and yet never quite able to subjugate it, they cannot help to both envy and resent the way the locals actually live their lives and truly enjoy themselves.
He also illuminates some of the differences in attitudes between American blacks and Cuban blacks. At the end of the day, perhaps the great racial divide that has perplexed us for so long in the West may not be bridgeable. You also glimpse the wellspring of Cuban anti-americanism, and it is not only a function of skin colour. It serves to exemplify contemporary anti-americanism in general.
Tourists cruise into a conveniently located small country offering cheap labor for their enjoyment, as if this was the sole and sufficient reason for the existence of this bejewelled island of gifted people. Tourists savor smooth rum, hand-rolled cigars, latin rhythms, easy-going women of all shades of color, sandy beaches, casinos, lush vegetation, colorful flowers, mouth-watering fruit, old colonial architecture, and nightclubs that compete with anywhere else in the world, all easily affordable to them. The insidious penetration of American dollars undermining the traditional way of life of the island is artfully described. Underneath the seafront tranquility, lurks that clash of cultures, most revealing where Bongo confronts the prejudices, attitudes and actions of an erstwhile wealthy American lover. Added to the pall of impending revolution, a botched nightclub bombing on New Year's Eve, corrupt police bosses, and an assassination attempt on the president during a racing car rally, all help to raise the stakes, and thus propel the novel into a veritable page-turner of irresistible power.
This master craftsman leaves no loose ends. All themes, including backstage details mentioned in passing, such as tapeworms and papayas, spiders and tar, are given their individual significance, and they are all duly wrapped up at the end of the story. I must add that the author's fetish for a particular item of female clothing appears throughout the story, but I will let the reader identify it for himself/herself. He also evokes the African, Spanish and Indian ancestry, producing a mix of religions, honoring the black madonna, with an undercurrent of African ritual even among hotel maids and shoeshine boys, professions not normally associated with prosperity.
Sanchez also takes a swipe at those American idealists trying to disrupt the island paradise for their own agenda, much like Grahame Greene described it in 'The Quiet American'. Cultural divide between the Hispanic and the Anglo-Saxon reminds one also of the late Henriette Doerr. Americans who cannot see past the broken sewers, undrinkable water, broken telephones and electrical power blackouts, to see the intrinsic beauty of Cuba's five hundred year old culture. Havana's inhabitants have no shadow of a doubt that they live in the center of the world, and a moment in time is captured of a people who felt no need for liberation.
Sanchez takes his novel one step beyond storytelling, with some penetrating social criticism. He pays homage to Cuban chivalry, and to their core values, and to what he calls the 'nobility of poverty'. Sensing how lucky they are, with their tenacious love of independence against the overreaching post-imperial hauter of contemporary Unites States, they are able to survive and prosper in their own way, because a well-priced bribe circumvents immediate difficulties. Native Cubans continuously express their deep love for their country, aware of how lucky they are to live in such a paradise. Proud of their culture, however poor, enjoying their own type of freedom, their music, even their martyrs and their slave ancestry, both acknowledged influences; yet the purity of their intentions shines through the superficial surface squalor. And all brought so vividly to life with the skill of Thomas Sanchez's pen. Fiction so powerful that it thrusts truth down your throat; the artist's message reaches your soul, jars your mind, and you come away affected, perhaps changed forever.
There is a good story here, but it lacks depth. There are plenty of complications of plot and plenty of atmosphere. I know nothing about Havana, but I felt as if I could see and hear and feel and smell it. And considering the barely 300 pages of length, he does a good job of exploring a few of the characters. But I wanted more - more about the childhood of King and his sister, more about the relationship between Zapata and the Panther, more about the Armstrong woman, and especially more about Sweet Maria, whose transvestitism seemed to be thrown in as an afterthought.
One of the major problems I had with this novel was the character of King Bongo himself. He didn't seem like any insurance agent I could ever imagine. A private detective, yes; but as an insurance agent, surely he was a failure. Where were his clients? And for pete's sake, where did he get the money he paid out to Mrs. Armstrong?
I also had a little trouble with the occasional remarks that indicated that most of the people were actually speaking Spanish, and the English dialogue in the book was actually a "translation." Of course this made sense in the context, but I kept wondering why he couldn't have just mixed more Spanish in with the English.
Still, this is a good solid story and I would definitely go to see it as a movie. Good acting could supply a lot of the "back story" that Sanchez barely hints at. It's a good enough book that I will read it again in a few months, and see if it grows on me some more.