By Stephen G. Michaud | Special to the Star-Telegram
King Bongo: A Novel of Havana
King Bongo is a bizarre, often grotesque mystery-adventure tale set in pre-revolutionary Cuba.
Thomas Sanchez, who is also the author of Mile Zero, begins his occasionally overheated fifth novel with a real bang on New Year’s Eve 1956, when terrorists detonate a bomb inside Havana’s Tropicana nightclub. Starring on the Tropicana stage that night is a sultry nude seductress known as “The Panther,” whose “feline body,” Sanchez writes, “vibrated with menacing sensuality.” In the audience sits her twin brother, King Bongo, locally famous for his wizardry on the bongos. He’s also familiar around the capital for the Red Rocket, his flashy Olds 88 convertible. King Bongo (an insurance agent, of all things) is on hand in hopes of selling the club owner a policy. Instead, his date is killed and his twin sister vanishes altogether.
No one seems certain of The Panther’s fate, but lots of people apparently know something about what happened. King Bongo’s quest to unravel that mystery is the novel’s central narrative thread, intertwined with a complex scheme to assassinate Cuba’s president.
However, plotting is not Sanchez’s forte, nor is his muse always equal to her task. For example, he describes a shoeshine boy named Monkey Shines as “black as the stain of indigo ink leaking from a fountain pen clipped to the white shirt pocket of a prosperous businessman.”
Nevertheless, the author knows how to ignite a story and keep it burning, particularly when it involves vivid, outrageous characters. King Bongo’s motley cast includes Sweet Maria, a gender-bending revolutionary; Larry Lizard, a local fixer and all-around skunk; Capt. Zapata, a sadistic cop who’s in love with The Panther; Mr. Wu, who makes King Bongo gifts of exotic orchids; the “Bad Actor,” a dissolute American matinee idol (evidently based on Errol Flynn); and Johnny Payday, a button man for the mob who likes to take Betty, his buxom, ditzy wife, with him on assignments. Payday’s calling card is a Payday candy wrapper.
Bongo zips around in the Red Rocket in search of The Panther, traveling up and down the island and throughout Havana, from the city’s famous Malecon seawall to a Chinese laundry, a porn theater, a lepers’ hospital and the Batista government’s secret body dumping ground, which is known as “the Pineapple Field” and where packs of feral dogs make short work of each new arrival.
“Be careful, honey,” Sweet Maria tells him at one point. “Zapata wants you dead.” Indeed, King Bongo nearly joins the desiccated throng at the Pineapple Field before the book skids to its conclusion. And with Sanchez behind the wheel, getting there is an entertaining, if bumpy, drive.