Outcast

by José Latour

Published by Akashic Books

217 pages, 1999


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The Cold (Shoulder) War

Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith

 

Sometimes I felt like Rodney King while reading Cuban crime writer José Latour's new English-language novel, Outcast. Why can't we all just get along, indeed?

The political and ideological posturing of both Cuba and the United States over the last four decades echoes like a distant, incessant drumbeat throughout this noirish thriller. It's a sly counter rhythm to a solid, if occasionally uneven tale of murder and treachery, which takes readers on an unflinching tour of life in both Havana and Miami's Cuban community. This book will push buttons. Guaranteed.

The publisher, tiny Akashic Books out of New York City, is hoping that Outcast -- already being billed as "the first Cuban crime novel to be written in English and published in the U.S." -- will be considered an important work. And Akashic may just be right.

The story's hero, Elliot Steil, is a mild-mannered, divorced, 40-ish Havana schoolteacher. His mother was Cuban; his father was an American sugar refinery worker stationed in Cuba in the days before the 1959 revolución, who deserted Elliot and his mother when Elliot was still a child. As the novel opens, Elliot is in the midst of one hell of a middle-age crisis, hovering just a notch above burnout. He's reached the end of the line, and sees nothing ahead of him in this socialist paradise likely to change his future. He teaches English as a second language to students who couldn't care less. Cuba's constant rationing of food, clothing and even electricity; the bone-crushing bureaucracy and lack of any hope for professional advancement (having an American father doesn't help); and the loss of any illusions he may have once had about his nation's political system have all taken their toll, worn him down. His is a life of quiet desperation, played out in a land of numbing and drab conformism.

Yet Elliot lacks the drive and courage to risk it all, by applying to legally immigrate to the land of his father. For to do that would mean risking the shame and scorn of his neighbors, as well as possible rejection -- he doesn't want to become another victim in the interminably smug political squabbling between Uncles Fidel and Sam. He's even less likely to attempt a dangerous, clandestine, nocturnal raft ride across the Florida Straits to America. He's just not that kind of guy. He's just a schoolteacher, with a vivid fear of boats and water. And there's the little fact that, despite the politics and the void his life has become, he truly loves the "beautiful, suffering island where he was born."

But then, out of the blue, hope arrives in the form of fat, obviously wealthy, 60-ish Dan Gastler, a mysterious Americano, a Florida private detective, posing as a tourist, who brings a secret message from Elliot's long-lost father. This is the chance of a lifetime: Elliot's opportunity to escape to the United States, hidden aboard Gastler's yacht.

What follows is a great, colorful tale of greed and revenge, violence and treachery, and the dashed ambitions and corruption of the human spirit. I'm a sucker for a deft bit of betrayal in a book, and author Latour serves up at least one doozy in this book -- one of the most breath-taking double crosses I've come across in crime fiction.

* * *

Elliot makes it to Florida, where he slips into the massive Cuban diaspora of Miami's Little Havana -- an educated man with no papers, no ID and no legitimate job skills to which he can lay claim in this new culture. He becomes Elio Esteil, struggling to survive in his savage new world by whatever means possible. He must also come to terms with both his newfound freedom and the realization that he's been "set up," although he's still not sure why.

He soon discovers that everything, even vengeance, costs money in his new home. With obsession lighting his way, he starts clambering up the food chain of the local criminal underground, working for a variety of gangsters and thieves, men who have found their own ways of making the American system work for them. Elliot's rapid rise from car thief working on commission to his lofty position as right-hand man to Ruben Scheindlin, a wheeler-dealer in charge of the lucrative smuggled freon racket, makes for compelling reading. Yet Elliot sees it only as a stepping stone, merely one part of his master plan to grab some justice for himself.

Just as a thriller, Latour's novel is intriguing enough, although a tad on the dry side (perhaps the fact that English is not his first language comes into play here). But it's Elliot's path from gentle schoolteacher to amoral, violent, driven man of action that's the real trip. And it's not so much the journey itself, but the observations Elliot makes along the way -- about both his homeland and his new home -- that make Outcast such a fascinating read.

Anyone expecting a simple rags-to-riches tale, with a waving of the flag and a rousing chorus of "God Bless America" could be in for a disappointment. Elliot may conclude that "second to air, water and food, freedom is man's most pressing need," but he also realizes that, ultimately, it's not some form of government that rules human nature. There is simply no such thing as paradise. "The world," he remarks, "is sick... some diseases are common to all societies, others need specific environments to survive."

It turns out that Elliot is as harsh a critic of the United States as he is of Cuba, and that's what makes this book so engrossing. For Latour's protagonist is not some wide-eyed yokel washing up on the shore, describing a land where streets are paved with gold; he's a sharp-eyed, educated man who's been disillusioned by communism, but turns out to be equally unimpressed with capitalism. The complacent, state-sanctioned, enforced conformity of Cuba, and the fantasies of America he has heard all his life, leave him ill-prepared for what he finds in the States: a land beset by violence and injustice, where the ideals are every bit as tarnished as those in his homeland, and where "social status is determined by monetary worth."

Elliot may view America's "cult of money" as loathsome, but it's the cult of violence and crime, into which he finds himself sinking, that most disturbs him. "In the self-proclaimed beacon of democracy," Latour writes, "in the land where freedom of speech was a constitutional right, in the country with the world's biggest and most expensive witness protection program, nobody, ever, came forward when organized crime was involved."

While Elliot's vision is cynical and caustic, he paints what seems (to this viewer's eye, at least) to be a fairly balanced, if rather angry portrait of both Havana and Miami. Latour isn't always able to resist sliding into rhetoric, but at least he's even-handed about it: Both capitalism and communism get to stand in line for some very hard knocks. Yes, there are axes to grind, but Latour makes sure those axes cut deep and hard into the bombast on both sides.

* * *

Author José Latour certainly seems suited to the task he has taken on here. The author of six previous books -- including Preludio a la Noche (Prelude to the Night) and Medianoche Enemiga (Midnight Enemy), all published in Cuba under the pen name of "Javier Moran" -- Latour is one of his country's most popular crime fiction writers. He has traveled extensively in the United States, as well as Europe, Canada and Mexico, and is the vice president of the Latin American division of the International Association of Crime. Outcast, his seventh novel, is his first written in English and the first to be printed in the States. It contains the occasional awkward turn of phrase, as well as some stilted, oddly formal dialogue (most notably in the somewhat rushed conclusion), but overall Outcast is a book well worth investigating. If we're lucky, this will be but the first of Latour's works to receive wider distribution.

To his credit, Latour seems to want to distance himself from the tiresome U.S./Cuba pissing contest. He's after bigger game than that, offering both Americans and Cubans a rare chance to see each other up close. Ultimately, he isn't pro-socialism or pro-capitalism. He seems to be, of all things, pro-humanity. The message he's offering in Outcast, despite his condemnations and the occasional misplaced rant, is ultimately one of compassion and maybe even hope. It is, however, a hope tinged with a fairly large chunk of fatalism, Latour's message being that no matter what flag you saluted in life, the ending for all of us is the same: "Like all funerals, I guess. Grieving, silent people saying goodbye to a loved one."

Is this a great book? No, merely a good one. But its publishers should be happy. Outcast offers no easy answers, but it asks some very good questions. That, alone, makes it important. | November 1999

 

KEVIN BURTON SMITH is the creator and editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site, which is devoted to the appreciation of fictional private eyes -- hard-boiled and otherwise -- in literature, film, television and other media. He lives in Montreal, where it's legal to smoke Cuban cigars and laugh at politicians, but it's not paradise, either.