J. DAVID SANTEN | The Oregonian
“King Bongo” is about as subtle as the explosion that tears King Bongo’s girlfriend apart right before his eyes.
Bongo, a Cuban American insurance investigator, escapes the bombed nightclub unscathed but loses his girl and his sister, the exotic dancer Panther. On a tip that Panther may still be alive, Bongo races to find her and to discover the bomber’s identity before Humberto Zapata does. He’s an agent in Cuban President Fulgencio Batista’s secret police, whose brutality is matched only by his lifelong passion for the mysterious Panther.
Thomas Sanchez (“Mile Zero,” “Rabbit Boss,” “Day of the Bees”) plants his new novel in 1957 Havana, on the cusp of Fidel Castro’s revolution and just a few miles south of “Mile Zero’s” Key West setting. “King Bongo” is hard-boiled roman noir, reminiscent of Randy Wayne White’s novels or Thomas McGuane’s “Ninety-two in the Shade.”
The feverish plot runs from New Year’s Eve to a Carnival climax on a path populated by an illustrious cast of familiar pulp characters: Zapata’s bumbling and immoral henchmen Pedro and Paulo, wealthy American temptress Mrs. Armstrong and her race-car driver husband, Guy; all-knowing Chinatown denizen Mr. Wu and his sidekick Ming; hard-throwing ballplayer Hurricane; hit man Johnny Payday, who leaves a candy wrapper in his victims’ mouths; and the seer/shoeshiner Monkey Shines.
Sanchez sets his characters on a grotesque stage of back alleys, seedy bars and dumping grounds for corpses in a Cuba that reeks of corruption and rot, sex and violence. While tourists and hit men’s wives get bombed on Banana Banshees at hotel bars, a maid is stashing a high-powered sniper’s rifle under the pillows. People aren’t just murdered—they’re raped first or shot in the face.
Only King Bongo—half-Cuban, half-American, half-black, half-white, insurer, investigator—keeps his eyes on the prize. “He always seemed balanced, like poised high up on a tightrope while the earth spun out of control below,” Sanchez writes. Like any good private eye, Bongo is deceived, hunted, beaten and left for dead, but continues his investigation. He is torn between the conflicting evils of Batista’s status quo and Castro’s bomb-happy rebels. Even as he tracks down Panther, he can sense his own Cuba closing in all around him.
“King Bongo” at times reads like an awkward translation, with clumsy dialogue tangled in the gears of a fast-moving plot. Too many characters—the Chinatown heavy Mr. Wu, the vile and corrupt Pedro and Paolo—are just caricatures, while too many others are confusing amalgams of politics, stereotype and sentiment. Even the theme of rhythm, central to Bongo and his Cuban half’s connection to the island, never coalesces with the disparate elements here.
What salvages “King Bongo” is what redeems most above-average, hard-boiled mysteries: the pervasiveness of an engaging mood or ambience rather than intricate plot or full-blown character study. Sanchez has exhumed a lost moment in time—- the last days of a Caribbean Pompeii—and stocked it with a cartoonish yet entertaining cast performing pulp-fiction standards.
For readers looking for some sort of byzantine police procedural, Sanchez isn’t their man. For those willing to trade in their “Usual Suspects” for a Buena Vista Anti-Social Club, King Bongo can lead the way.
Sanchez reads from “King Bongo” at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside St. J. David Santen is a Portland writer