Pros: A crime story with a war setting? How can you go wrong?
Cons: I'll just leave this and avoid an obvious cliche here.
The Bottom Line: My my, Cuba really came full circle, didn't it?
What we have here is the result of what happens when the brilliant crime author Elmore Leonard goes completely bonkers after reading too much James Michener. In Cuba Libre, Leonard returns us back to the olden days, when he was writing westerns - only Cuba Libre isn't a western. It has the feel of a western because it's set in the late 1800's in Cuba, which gives it that rough-and-tumble western quality. However, the year is 1898, long after the US frontier disappeared, and anyone familiar with history better know damn well the colorful backdrop Leonard is presenting us with in this particular case. Cuba Libre brings us a rather eclectic combination of the old western Elmore Leonard and the new Detroit crime Elmore Leonard. It's a crime story all right, but it's set against the very interesting scenario of the Spanish-American war, which makes it just that much better than any other Leonard book I've read.
Cuba Libre begins three days after the explosion of the USS Maine, and on the very first page, those who are unfamiliar with Leonard's sharp, direct narrative and crackling dialogue get their first example when the main character, Ben Tyler, asks what he sees floating in the harbor. After being told that it's the Maine, Tyler thinks to himself "The main what?" Anyway, Tyler's purpose in showing up in Cuba revolves around the horses he and his partner, Charlie Burke, plan to sell as cover for a s***load of guns they're smuggling. Tyler's first full day ashore in Cuba is a very eventful one. On that day alone, Tyler manages a unique personal hat trick by making a friend, a girlfriend, and an enemy - and that between a busy schedule of getting screwed by his investor, shooting a Don, and getting himself tossed into prison by his new enemy, Tavalera. In prison, Ben has the fortune to hook up (not in THAT way, you sick pervs) with an American sailor named Virgil, a survivor of the Maine explosion. After almost two months in the Cuban hellhole known as The Morro, the aforementioned friend (Victor Fuentes) and girlfriend (Amelia Brown) hatch a daring plan to get Tyler out of The Morro before he meets the same fate as Charlie Burke (who meets his untimely demise at the receiving end of a firing squad).
When the flap of the book that explains the plot of Cuba Libre says there's a train journey across Cuba, it lies. The train journey is actually a train robbery - or better described, a robbery that just happens to take place on a train. Tyler, Amelia, and Victor are all looking for a rather large score of cash from the Rollie, the investor who screwed Tyler. Rollie owns a large sum of farmland in Cuba, enough that he pays his own personal army to defend it, and is rich, Rich, RICH because of his smart investing. And everyone wants a piece. The original plan involves a fake kidnapping of Amelia, who happens to be Rollie's mistress, for a 40 grand bonanza. Of course, things don't pan out just the way they're supposed to. Throw in a few factors like a journalist named Neely, a Cuban police chief named Rudi, and a bodyguard named Novis, and a few things are bound to happen on the road between our heroes and their big score.
The good guys and bad guys in Cuba Libre don't have tons of moral differences between them. In fact, with the exception of Neely, they're pretty much all up to no good. Tyler is a bank robber who falls into his old patterns at one point. Tavalera, after he jails Tyler, looks for reasons to throw him to the firing squad as fervently as President Bush looked for reasons to attack Iraq. The most interesting character, at least to me, was Amelia. Amelia knows every last going-on in the country, and has met all the interesting people there through Rollie. When Neely says he would rather write about Amelia than any of the more famous people he's met, you'll understand. Victor is another interesting fellow - he's clearly on the side of the Cuban insurgents, and has done time in the past for his beliefs in a free Cuba. At the beginning of Cuba Libre, when Leonard is first introducing us to his current assortment of colorful characters, there are a few characters who you don't know what to think of, and who won't have their protagonist/antagonist roles defined until later. Victor and Tavalera are both examples of this, as is the Don who enjoyed dueling a bit too much before he picked a fight with Tyler.
The attraction of Cuba Libre, of course, is the backdrop. Cuba on the eve of the Spanish-American war. While there are no brutal descriptions of war crimes committed by either side, the war has an obvious effect on the thinking of the main characters. In one scene, Rollie makes a point to one of his lackies by citing the way the Admiral of the US Navy sailed all the way out to the Philipine Islands to take out the Spanish fleet there. The protagonists seem to work the potential plans of the US military into their decisions, so they don't find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Teddy Rosevelt and his Rough Riders are mentioned near the end of the book. But don't pick up Cuba Libre in the hopes of reading a fictional first-person account of the way. The closest we get to that is at a point when Leonard writes about how Virgil got where he is. Virgil was on the Maine when it went boom, and the best moment of suspence in Cuba Libre is actually the time before the ship explodes with Virgil on it.
The main thing to point out about the writing in Cuba Libre is that the characters don't talk like they do in those exaggeratted epic movies. There's no hammed-up courage. (In fact, Amelia shows the opposite during the prison break scene, when she's forced to carry a gun.) The dialogue is typical Leonard, which means it snaps, crackles, and pops more than ten bowls of Rice Krispies. These characters are not averse to the occaisional curse word, and they make pop culture references of the day - including a reference to author Stephen Crane, who wrote The Red Badge of Courage around the time Cuba Libre is set in. Since the character Virgil is a military man, he really knows his stuff about battleships. He talks extensively about the Maine and how it was considered a second-class battleship, and about other ships like the New York. He also knows how to signal, and he uses that ability to wave to some American ships during a scene. I made a Michener reference at the beginning of this review; I only know Michener by reputation, having never read any of his books. His reputation says he writes in a descriptive manner. Leonard, by comparison, is not so descriptive. Leonard's main concern is keeping the story moving and interesting, and he succeeds at this in Cuba Libre even more so than in two of his other masterpieces, Out of Sight and Touch. Not that I was expecting anything different; I wonder if Leonard has the stuff for descriptive narratives, and if he does, I hope it never finds its way into his books because they're written on action and suspence more than anything.
Elmore Leonard moved a little out of his comfort zone with Cuba Libre, and he has a hell of a narrative to show for it. It's a shame Cuba Libre doesn't appear among his books that have been bestsellers, because it has a very wild blend of action, history brought to life, one of the coolest stories to ever appear in print (coolness, of course, being a Leonard trademark), and just a light touch of romance that makes for a very engaging read.
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Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial. Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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War in Cuba isn't Ben Tyler's concern. Still, sailing mares and guns into Havana harbor in 1898--right past the submerged wreckage of the U.S. battleship <i>Maine</i>--may not be the smartest thing the recently prison-sprung horse wrangler ever did. Neither is shooting one of the local Guardia, though the pompous peacock deserved it. Now Tyler's sitting tight in a vermin-infested Cuban stockade waiting to face a firing squad. But he's not dying until he gets the money he's owed from a two-timing American sugar baron. And there's one smart, pistol-hot lady at the rich man's side who could help Ben get everything he's got rightfully coming...even when the whole damn island's going straight to hell.