Reviewed by Elisa Ludwig | SFgate.com
By Thomas Sanchez
KNOPF; 310 PAGES; $25
It’s a book review cliche that a setting can become a character, but in Thomas Sanchez’s fifth novel, “King Bongo,” 1950s Havana might be credited as the book’s character, plot and soul. As he did with Key West in his 1990 novel “Mile Zero,” Sanchez has taken the entire historical and cross-cultural immensity of his setting and telescoped it into an intricately twisted mystery.
“King Bongo” opens on New Year’s Eve 1956, as its title character, a Cuban American insurance salesman with a knack for playing the drums and scoring women, visits the Tropicana casino in hopes of selling a policy to its owner. Just before midnight, Bongo steps outside to buy an exotic orchid, and a bomb explodes inside, killing his girlfriend. In the meantime, Bongo’s sister, an exotic dancer known as the Panther who was scheduled to perform at the Tropicana, has disappeared. It’s not long before the corrupt police chief, Zapata, confronts Bongo about the crime, and the two rivals set off on the search for the Panther and the terrorist. In the meantime, Bongo meets the requisite femme fatale, a wealthy American woman who hires him to tail her husband, who may or may not know something about the casino explosion.
The resulting novel, told through multiple points of view, is a labyrinthine tour through Havana’s most posh hangouts and seediest districts where, on both sides, drugs and rum and sex spill freely. Along the way, Bongo encounters a parade of flatly colorful characters: gamblers, a ballplayer, American tourists, a pedophilic movie star and a gangster named Johnny Payday. Their various interconnections and crossed paths contribute to the complexity of an already elaborate plot. Sanchez is a master of scene, and his seamless chapters fold and unfold with the accuracy of quick dissolves.
The choice to place his novel in 1957, at the height of Havana’s international glamour and a year before the Castro-led revolt against the Batista government, allows Sanchez great dramatic and situational irony. He supplies his characters with winking lines such as Bongo’s “I’ll do what I want. This isn’t a Communist country.” Awash in cultural exports, Sanchez’s Cuban characters are ambivalent about the influence of the United States. They engage in endless debates about the relative merits of Benny More and Johnny Ray. They lust after America’s cars but disapprove of its female tourists. Sanchez’s Havanans, from the shoeshine man to the police chief, like to bolster the mystique of their country with slogans such as “Illusions, man. Cuba is an island of illusions.” To the tourists, Havana is a pretty place to party and indulge in illegal behaviors.
While his fictional characters carouse at legendary landmarks such as the Floridita restaurant and the Hotel Nacional, Sanchez chisels away at the decadent gloss of the movie stars and moguls, gamblers and gangsters to unearth a very different kind of city. In the slums and among the working people, Havana breathes a history of slavery, revolution, racism and poverty. Even Sanchez’s most cartoonish characters are confronted with that past, and the novel has more than a faint trace of social consciousness.
Bongo, with his own ambiguous skin color and mixed parentage, moves between the two worlds, observing their differences, but his scope is too small and immediate to perceive the imminent political change. There are others who can, chief among them a mysterious black hotel maid named Sweet Maria who worships saints and wants to help the “bearded boys in the mountains” overthrow the government. Despite its political scenery, “King Bongo” never delves too deep, and these issues provide narrative context more than central ideas.
Sanchez has an excellent hold over a kind of big-picture, epic storytelling,
but his mystery deflates with too much examination: Too many suspicious characters and blind alleys make the plot labored and distracting, and too many half-articulated clues fall away as red herrings. Days into his search, Bongo goes to Chinatown to get answers from his orchid dealer and wonders, “Why all this Chinese inscrutability? Why all these tests of his patience?” There are moments when the reader wonders the same of this novel.
To be sure, “King Bongo” is a detective story, and its withholding of important information to sustain the mystery is par for the genre. If there is too much lingering along the way, it is in the service of entertainment, which is never in short supply. Sanchez seems to take a particular delight in comic potboiler dialogue, duels of quick witticisms and getting great metaphorical mileage out of the words “ripe papaya” and “banana.” Drawing from a genre bag of tricks familiarizes the exotic and encapsulates a complicated history. But the world Sanchez has created is airtight and full of vivid, believable myth.
Elisa Ludwig’s reviews have appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.