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     Volume 7 Issue 46 | November 21, 2008 |

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Book Review

Telex From Cuba

David Abrams

Sometimes history makes the best bedrock for fiction. With a hard, bottom sediment of factual details, novelists can build layers of character, dialogue and contrived events that transport readers to places the actual truth never could.

Such is the case with Rachel Kushner's first novel, "Telex From Cuba," set in the waning years of the American-owned United Fruit Company in Cuba. Kushner fills the novel with enough vivid details to make readers feel as if they are on the island at the zenith of American prosperity.

In fact, reading "Telex From Cuba" often seems like leafing through a scrapbook of memories. With good reason: The novel is based in part on Kushner's family history. Her mother grew up in Cuba in the 1950s, in the United Fruit Company enclave where "Telex from Cuba" takes place. Until Fidel Castro rose to power, the Americans controlled Cuba's two most profitable exports, its sugar and nickel operations.

As Kushner documents it, the United Fruit Company employed 14,000 sugar cane cutters and owned 330,000 acres of arable land, 850 railcars, two company DC-3s and a 75-foot yacht. Business during the Eisenhower era was, in all senses of the word, sweet.

"You could sit in the Pan-American Club, which had a bank of panoramic windows perched out over the water like the prow of an ocean liner, and watch the boats coming in and being loaded with bags of raw sugar."

During cutting season, the mill processed 15 million pounds of sugar every day. That's why a fire set by rebels led by Fidel and his brother, Raul, is so devastating and signals the start of the American decline in Cuba. Along with the United Fruit Company, the Nicaro nickel mine has crowded the island with even more Americans, and the natives are more than restless; they're agitating for a revolution to overthrow the U.S.-friendly regime of Fulgencia Batista.

The cast in Kushner's novel is large and varied, at times so large that lesser characters fade into disposable blandness, but she wisely chooses to focus on children of the American executives. The best parts of the novel are told through the eyes of K.C. Stites and Everly Lederer, who tells us on the opening page, "Sometimes children are more clever than adults and not prone to the same vices."

There is plenty of vice and licentiousness among the adults of the novel; bits of F. Scott Fitzgerald are layered in the sediment of the narrative, and you can sense a Gatsbyesque tragedy brewing from the start. Mix volatile politics into the equation, and it's not hard to chart the destiny of the characters. "Batista was persona non grata with the Cubans, and we were caught in the middle," K.C. narrates. "Fidel and Raul, these were local boys, and I think Daddy was hoping he could reason with them."

However, the company executives have the myopic ambition of imperialists; they're unable to see the pending revolution is not about economy, it's about Cuban society's widening chasm of class. Kushner complicates (and clutters) the book with a secondary plot involving a former Nazi sympathizer and a burlesque dancer named Rachel K who help foment rebellion in Havana.

Kushner too often lets the novel stray into diluted John Le Carré territory. She's at her best in the non-Havana scenes when she immerses readers in the lifestyles of the rich and fabulous Americans.

Dinners at the Stites household are a formal affair: Daddy wears an immaculately starched white duck suit, Mother sports pearls and the children are seen, not heard, while the butler stoically serves four courses at tables set with polished silver, good china and finger bowls. Is it any wonder the "local boys" want to oust the rich American capitalists?

Thanks to the bedrock of history, we all know how the story ends politically, but Kushner's evocation of the Americans' decline is fresh and compelling. She takes us to a place and time we've seldom visited before.

This review first appeared in ‘The San Francisco Chronicle’.

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