‘King Bongo’ by Thomas Sanchez
In his fifth novel, Thomas Sanchez, whose “Mile Zero” and “Rabbit Boss” won lavish praise, offers an exotic portrait of sex, violence, corruption and conspiracy in Cuba two years before the triumph of Fidel Castro’s revolution. The story begins on New Year’s Eve in Havana’s Tropicana nightclub, where high-roller gamblers, swanky socialites, rich foreigners and the political elite are counting down the seconds until 1957. At the stroke of midnight, a bomb goes off, killing and maiming celebrants and showgirls. The title character, King Bongo, survives but his girlfriend is dead, and his sister, a celebrated dancer known as the Panther, vanishes.
Bongo had escaped poverty to become a popular man about town. The son of a Cuban woman and an American soldier, he tools about in his Oldsmobile Rocket 88 convertible, pursuing his various roles as insurance agent, private investigator, musician (King of the Bongo) and connoisseur of women, rum and orchids. He was outside the Tropicana, buying a rare orchid from the mysterious Mr. Wu, when the bomb went off. The tragedy gives Bongo a mission: to learn who killed his girlfriend and to find his sister.
His investigation soon brings him into conflict with the murderous Capt. Humberto Zapata of the Batista regime’s secret police. Bongo’s quest leads to a number of mostly unsavory Americans. Two gangsters called Larry Lizard and Johnny PayDay (named for his favorite candy bar) are in Havana to thwart an assassination attempt on President Batista. They are accompanied by PayDay’s extremely dim wife, Broadway Betty, who communicates mainly in snatches of show tunes. PayDay is assigned to keep track of an American movie star who is visiting with his 15-year-old mistress and is suspected of pro-Castro sympathies. In the novel’s comic highlight, the actor gets Broadway Betty drunk on banana banshees and tries to seduce her in hopes of finding out what her husband is up to.
Bongo also becomes involved with a glamorous American couple, Elizabeth and Guy Armstrong. Guy, a race-car driver, frequents a gay bar called the Three Virgins, and the elegant Elizabeth hires Bongo to keep tabs on him. Another American, known only as Sailor Girl (“very rich trash”), turns up from time to time with whatever visiting sailors she has chosen for her evening’s entertainment.
Sanchez’s Havana is far more attractive than most of his people. He celebrates the beauty of a great city now forbidden to most Americans. “Havana has history, five hundred years of history,” Bongo says passionately. “Havana has a center as elegant as any city in Europe. It has a heart, it has an identity.” One day he enters Plaza Vieja, “Havana’s Colonial heart. Here, all the architectural splendor that the spoils of a raped land could afford had been imaginatively conjured. The buildings were supported by soaring Pantheonic columns, but the modern-day President and his men had transformed the plaza’s center into a parking lot. . . . Bongo felt he was the last man walking through a delusional dreamscape.”
On its surface, “King Bongo” is a colorful, fast-paced story of gamblers and dancing girls, rumors and plots, voodoo and opium dens, exclusive clubs and sordid bars. Almost all of its characters claim to be nonpolitical. Castro’s revolution seems far away; Capt. Zapata is a more immediate threat. To offend him is to die and have your body tossed in the Pineapple Field and eaten by dogs. Sanchez tells us of Bongo, “The rum made him think that pretty soon now the bearded boys in the mountains would all be shot, the bombing would stop, and things would go back to cockeyed normal.” Another character thinks of Cuba’s poverty: “Why go up into the mountains and fight to change it? In the end it was all going to be just like it was in the beginning, haves and have-nots.”
But most of these characters are not what they first appear to be; Sanchez is playing a more subtle game. Mr. Wu owns a laundry but also deals in orchids, opium and intrigue: “I know everyone’s laundry. I know everyone’s secrets.” A woman turns out to be a man, and a maid turns out to be an assassin. An old man who shines shoes reports to Capt. Zapata in exchange for a prime location. A regal American heiress is glimpsed in a porn movie. A Cuban baseball star has a secret life. Slowly we learn how many of the characters are more political than we thought.
Sanchez does not romanticize the revolutionaries; both the bombing that opens the novel and the attempted assassination of Batista that ends it are absurdly bungled. But by the final page, even carefree King Bongo discovers that his heart belongs to the revolution, and we realize that his beloved orchids are not just precious flowers but a symbol of the freedom that he and his compatriots hungered for in 1957 and still hunger for today.