- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2003


By Thomas Sanchez

Knopf, $25, 310 pages


Thomas Sanchez’s “King Bongo: A Novel of Havana,” his fourth fourth book, is one strange — not to say downright weird — piece of work. But before going any further into the weirder aspects, you should know some of the good things people have been saying about Mr. Sanchez’s writing since his first novel, “Rabbit Boss,” a 100-year saga of a California-Nevada Indian tribe, was published in 1972. The San Francisco Chronicle deemed it one of the most important books of the 20th century.

Mr. Sanchez’s second novel, “Zoot-Suit Murders” published six years later, was cited by the Los Angeles Times on its map of Los Angeles literary history. His third novel, “Mile Zero,” published 13 years later, was called “dazzling” and earned its author a Guggenheim Fellowship.

“Day of the Bees,” his fourth novel set in wartime France and published in 2000, inspired the French Republic to award Mr. Sanchez the order of Chevalier des Arts et Lettres. (The French, judging from assorted blurbs on Mr. Sanchez’s books, have been quite beside themselves about all his earlier novels. Indeed, the critic of L’Express judged “Rabbit Boss”: “A classic to rank with ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’”)

So here we are in Havana in 1957 and the eponymous Cuban-American King Bongo walks into the famed Tropicana nightclub on New Year’s Eve resplendent in a wide-lapeled powder blue tuxedo with back-and-white patent leather shoes on his feet. “He walked to the beat, not arrogant, not strutting. Not threatening. He had a natural rhythm drumming in his blood. People noticed his walk because he always seemed balanced, like a guy poised high up on a tightrope while the earth spun out of control below.”

He also had that beat in his blood, because his white U.S. sailor father used to beat rhythmically on the seven-year-old heads of him and his twin sister, blond and black-skinned who grew up to become The Panther, star of the Tropicana. Daddy would beat out musical patterns on their young skulls, singing all the while, “The Bongo has two heads, man and woman, hate and love, war and peace, Christianity and Santeria. Thwack-thwack-whap-ditty-do-dap-whack.”

King Bongo is an orchid fancier (quaint shades of Nero Wolfe), and takes a break from the club to collect the one-of-a-kind orchid that the mysterious Mr. Wu in a long blue silk tunic with gold thread woven through it brings to him in his limo. Oh yes, Mr. Wu smokes a cigarette in a long carved ivory holder, of course. But King Bongo does not have long to savor his precious orchid, for at the stroke of midnight as the crowd starts shouting out “Happy New Year,” the Tropicana explodes in a powerful blast. This bomb is an act of terrorism coming from “the bearded ones.” For what it’s worth, as I recollect, Fidel Castro stuck to the back country, and never resorted to urban terrorism, although Che Guevara wrote in later years a defense of just such activity while personally regretting its need.

Gradually Mr. Sanchez introduces more characters into his strange novel like the head of President Batista’s secret police, the ever so evil Humberto Zapata, and the rich and beautiful American Mrs. Armstrong. “She sat on the edge of the desk as if sitting sidesaddle on a horse, an aristocratic pose. She reached up and removed her hat, then unpinned the diamond clip in her blond hair and shook her hair loose.”

Not to mention an American hit man, Johnny Payday and his wife, Broadway Betty, brought into Havana by Leaping Larry Lizard to the Hotel Nacional to take out Errol Flynn. Well, actually Flynn’s never really identified by name, only called the Actor, and referred to as Robin Hood, Captain Blood and General Custer (three of Flynn’s most famous roles) and with a weakness for teenage girls.

And then we have Maria, the chambermaid at the Nacional who’s really Joseph, a man, who tries to assassinate Batista but kills a racing driver by mistake. As he fires, he is thinking with all his heart of the “bearded young saints in the mountains.” That’s right: Fidel, Che and comrades: bearded young saints..

The tone Mr. Sanchez employs throughout the book is way over the top. Extravagant mingling of grand guignol with comic book patois from the Fifties fleshed out with clips of serie noir period movies brings you to the final cry in italics complete to exclamation point of “Revolution!”

Granted the author wanted to paint a portrait of Havana in a state of high decadence, but after 46 years have passed and we all know what kind of a Cuba that bearded saint down from the mountains brought we have reason to feel there is something faintly obscene about Mr. Sanchez’s fifth novel.Better you should seek out any of his first four novels handsomely reissued in paperback by Knopf in its Vintage collection.

Cynthia Grenier writes The Mag Trade column for The Washington Times.

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