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Fiction

Paul Vidich’s The Good Assassin raises a number of questions, some of which have to do with the action in this “Cold War spy fiction” that just happens to be set in Havana, on the eve of the triumph of Fidel Castro’s Revolution; and others that have more to do with why we read in the first place.  In other words, what is any particular reader looking for when they open a book?

 

As far as this particular novel goes it is entertaining, to a degree, pacey enough, although it does not have much depth.  There is little or none of the subtext that I personally prefer to deal with in the books I read.  The characters are pretty flat, rendered with little nuance, and therefore not complex.  And the portrait of Havana in 1958 is limited, and almost stereotypical, the sense of the place tinted by the lens of the genre.  More than once I thought that The Good Assassin could be located just about anywhere, at any time, it really didn’t matter when and where. 

 

On the level of language Vidich strains more often than he accomplishes, and it shows.  Some lines strike cold and hard and fast and true, and others are practically unintelligible:

 

Mueller didn’t agree to the assignment at their lunch, but his silence was confederate to the director’s request.  He knew one week was an impossibly optimistic estimate of the time he’d be in Cuba, but the idea that he would escape campus lethargy had tart appeal.  His sabbatical was upon him, but he’d lost interest in his research on the puns and paradoxes in Hamlet, a lively but binocularly narrow topic, and he was out of sorts with his life. 

 

Despite pretty much everything in this novel being clichéd to some degree, this paragraph early in the story—which goes on in this vein—provides the reader with a pretty good idea of who and what Mueller is, even if Mueller’s character, as developed throughout the book, remains basically two dimensional, and therefore unrealized.

 

Of course Mueller is going to bed Katie, the plucky free-lance photographer he’s hired as part of his cover.  But what, really, does this mean?

 

They found themselves tempted by the idea that they were more interesting and spontaneous than the physics of a professional calculation.

 

Or:

Self-deprecation was a strategy too.  He knew better than to allow spite to jeopardize a deceit.

 

There are plenty of these presumably witty but not-entirely-clear affirmations, lines that must sound good to Vidich’s ear and that do sound like the sort of thing that might come out of Humphrey Bogart’s mouth—in voice over, if necessary—but are, unfortunately, closer to gibberish.  Later Vidich will write, “Sunlight flushed shy thoughts from his mind” followed by this:

 

Mueller felt in that part of his mind that calibrates threats before they are obvious the risk of being made complicit in a crime.

 

This, at least, is straight forward and comprehensible and it has the necessary crime-thriller beat.  But too often Vidich forgets Ezra Pound’s dictum that “Fundamental accuracy of statement is the sole morality of writing.”

 

This lack of fundamental accuracy applies not only to his language, but to the observations of his characters and the action.  At the very beginning of the novel Mueller flies from Connecticut to Cuba, presumably passing through Miami.  And yet he looks out the window as they begin their descent towards Havana and sees the Sierra Maestra, where Fidel Castro launched his efforts to overthrow Batista.  Unfortunately for the reader who knows anything about Cuban geography this is impossible:  the flight from Miami usually enters from the west and the Sierra Maestra is located east of Havana:  over 400 miles away, as the crow flies.

 

In terms of a sense of place, twice in the space of four short pages Vidich describes the landscape—from Havana to Camaguey—as “unchanging:”

 

The four of them were driving through a monotonous section of the Carretera Central several hours into their journey to Camaguey.  Fields of sugar cane and thorn brush filled the view, and ahead, still a ways off, the russet hills of their destination…They smiled at Mueller’s comment, but their eyes drifted back to the unchanging landscape.

 

After winding through more “thorn brush,” whatever that might be, specifically—what this brush might actually look like, or how looking at so much of it might make someone feel—Mueller looks at Liz and sees a “sad expression” on her face “that was a window onto a terrible grief,” as “she gazed out at the barren, unchanging landscape of dry red earth on the passing hills.”

 

Just as the landscape, and setting in general, is treated in this offhand manner, so too are the characters handled, not as if they were individuals leading unique lives, but as if they were stereotypes of the brusque heartless American rancher-businessman and the pitiful adulterous-of-necessity wife.  Katie—the spunky photojournalist—actually has a bit of character, but her role in the story is minor.  Nothing about this story carries the conviction of any kind of truth, either of place or character.

 

But the story is full of these baffling lines, that might make the reader pause and puzzle over Vidich’s intent:

 

He began to see there was a way to think about Graham’s life as spun from a single filament of fact woven loosely into a fabric of sheer audacity.

 

The jeopardy of the moment deepened and turned profound.  Smells of rain drifted to them and branches ripped from trunks flew into the air.  A woman with wounded memories finds it helpful to succor the pain by sharing thoughts with a friend.  And so it happened.

 

Perfect weather at the start of All Saint’s Week provided the opportunity to honor the promise of the day.

 

One of the major problems of this novel is that nothing is believable.  Not that a reader can’t or won’t follow the action and wonder what will happen next, without disbelieving what they’re being told.  But rather the reader is being told too much, and too little is demonstrated in this novel.  We are supposed to believe this conversation is taking place during a hurricane, but nothing Vidich does with his prose suggests the experience of a hurricane.  The threat of violence is supposed to be all around these characters, but the reader never feels this threat of violence. 

 

Vidich writes, at the beginning of Chapter 9, near the end of the novel, and shortly before its climax, “The little party was using the charm of a fisherman’s shack to escape the oppression of the war.  They all wanted to embrace the trip as a way to lighten the day, contain their drama and preserve decorum, but Mueller felt jeopardy in the fragile peace.” 

 

Vidich uses the word ‘jeopardy’ here as above to try to convince the reader, via the use of a single word, and by relying almost exclusively upon that word’s definition[1] that his characters are involved in a dangerous situation.  But the reader—or I, at least—never feels this.  There is no sense of threat percolating beneath the surface of this novel, no subtext of real danger.  Everything is almost distressingly obvious and obviously fabricated. 

 

So it shouldn’t have been any surprise to me to see how Vidich used—or usurped—certain motifs and characters from The Great Gatsby to generate his own characters (Jack is almost interchangeable with Tom, although the portrayal of the latter is much more sophisticated) and the climax of his novel, in which Mueller—after a scene almost identical to the scene in Fitzgerald’s novel in which Gatsby tells Tom that Daisy loves him and she finally encourages everyone to go into town in order to relieve the tension created by her dilemma—hits and kills Jack’s lover with the car while he drives a distraught Liz home. 

 

There is also the issue of the stilted speech.  At the fisherman’s shack, where Jack chose to confront and expel Graham, presumably from their home as well as their lives, Liz says to him, her husband, “You let the garden of our marriage go to seed.  There were flowers we planted to remind us who we used to be, but they’ve withered.  Dried up here in this place.  All our sunshine days of memory are not enough to let us ignore the weeds.”

 

The Good Assassin is a quick easy read, that could have been set anywhere, at any period of history.  Just as the setting is immaterial, so are the characters, because they never come to life, and instead remain two-dimensional cardboard stereotypes of characters incapable of devising their own story.

 

To match and balance the impossible sighting of the Sierra Maestra at the beginning of the novel there is the shootout in the belfry of the church where Graham had arranged to meet Liz so that they could leave on a DC 3 at the end of the novel.  Mueller notices two green Oldsmobiles parked outside, to indicate that Pryce—the FBI guy—has not only come with Alonzo, head of SIM, the Cuban Military Police, but is in cahoots with him.  But how can a reader believe this?  These guys are there to take down Graham, who is suspected of delivering arms to the rebels, and they take two cars, each driving one of them, and bring no reinforcements?  Talk about jeopardy!

 

I’ve said enough.  This novel requires some real suspension of disbelief, but that’s precisely what many people read for:  in order to ‘escape reality.’

 

 

[1] Danger of loss, harm, or failure, a term originally used in chess and other games to denote a problem, or a position in which the chances of winning or losing were evenly balanced, hence ‘a dangerous situation.’



By Cuban revolutionary movement – http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/william-morgan.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73744225

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History, Memoirs, Non-fiction

Waldo Frank’s Cuba, Prophetic Island was in many ways prophetic itself.  Written at the express invitation of the revolutionary government that had only recently established itself in Havana, the book was expected to be a portrait of Cuba—and a snapshot of the Revolution—similar to other books Frank had written about Latin America and Spain, books the “younger generation, now in command,” had read and admired.

 

The invitation, of course, would not have come if my past work had not revealed simpatia and what to them seemed comprehension of America Hispana.  But there was never the slightest inquiry as to what the book would say, what it would be.

 

These were heady optimistic days, and the Cuban leadership wanted their story told by someone whose sympathies were obviously with the Revolution.  Apparently they were able to pay for the job as well, with a two year grant.

 

That being said, the book is not dishonest.  In some ways it is, however—like so much that has to do with Cuba today—stuck in time.  But it is no less interesting or informative for that. 

 

On the contrary, Frank’s study of Cuba’s unique history among the Spanish colonies and the effects of the peculiarities of this history upon the formation of the character of the Cuban people provides enduring insights that you won’t find anywhere else.  This, and a sense of the widespread enthusiasm and hope among intelligent and informed observers of the time that with the Cuban Revolution a new world might be dawning.

 

Of course modern Cuba’s “birth”—as Frank regarded the Revolution—occurred at the worst of times, the height of the Cold War, when everything that happened everywhere was understood in terms of black (Soviet and Communist influence) and white (U.S. and Western Democratic ideals).  And Frank was quite simply wrong, or at least mistaken, on a number of issues.

 

Che Guevara, for example, was never a “psychiatrist, practicing psychoanalysis in Buenos Aires.”  Nor did he have “blonde disheveled hair.”  But these are petty, though difficult to understand, errors.  Most of what Waldo Frank says in Prophetic Island has stood up to the test of time.

 

And that’s only part of the reason this book makes for a fascinating and indispensable read for anyone interested in Cuba and its history.  The book is full of eloquent insights that are the product of an extremely well-read and deeply observant mind.

 

There are far too many of these sentences and paragraphs to quote, but Frank points out, for example, that “in economics and political mood, Cuba differed deeply from the greater colonies of Spain; and in its preponderantly European ethos, differed from the slave-run factories of the Caribbean.”

 

For an empire hungry for gold and silver Cuba was regarded as a failure.  There were no riches to be mined and no massively profitable latifundias on the island, as in Mexico and Peru, but instead smaller more modest hacendados concerned with the raising of cattle.  Although sugar cane production was labor intensive and Cuba imported more slaves than the United States, prior to independence from Spain in 1898 there was no monoculture as in the neighboring islands.  Even during the half century of U.S. domination—during which most of the land on the island and most of the major companies operating there were American owned—the tobacco industry, and particularly the rolling of the cigars for which Cuba remains famous, was operated with a largely non-slave craftsman-like labor force.

 

Cuba’s independence from Spain was late in coming, and during the sixty or seventy years that separated that event from those which resulted in the independence of most of the other former Spanish colonies in the Americas, a class of patriots—led by the words and foolish example of José Martí—emerged, thirsting after waiting far too long for the day when Cuba would finally be free of its former master.

 

I say foolish because Martí died in the first battle of the third war of independence, an engagement that ended in a draw.  His death was pointless, even absurd, and unnecessary. 

 

But as Frank points out “Cubans are bearers of the Hispanic culture, whose hero is Don Quixote, the knight who assails windmills and frees a gang of brutish convicts in the desperate effort to bring justice to the modern world.”  Martí’s death—like Castro’s storming of the Moncada barracks fifty-eight years later; and his return to Cuba with a small band of seasick fighters in December of 1956—was senseless but not futile:  for it inspired the men who came after him and helped enable them to embrace what Unamuno called “the tragic sense of life,” and overcome the odds that were stacked against them.

 

Cuba was weak—and somehow strong; Cuba was minor—and somehow major.

 

And with the triumph of the Cuban Revolution this statement, regarding the situation in the country in the 19th century, became prophetic.

 

But when Frank wrote his book he didn’t know this.  He knew only what he had learned of the history of Cuba, and what he saw firsthand of the Cubans.  What, he asks rhetorically, do the largely inexperienced leaders of the new Cuba have in common?

 

They are improvised agronomists, economists, bankers, buyers, soldiers, leaders of industry and of labor.  They are improvised statesmen and diplomats:  one might almost say they are improvised Cubans in their exalted meaning of the name.  Doubtless they make mistakes, for while they act they are still learning.  Time will judge their capacities of mind in their perilous undertaking.  What composes them together on so many and such complex levels is their sharing, at deep sources of energy unknown to the conventional office-holder, in the immediate work inspired by Cuba’s political, industrial and cultural incompleteness.  Wonderfully surviving the centuries of blood, of piracy (old and new), and of corruption, the Cubans emerge into history with an experiment—not of mere production, not of mere political independence:  an experiment in goodness.

 

Frank knew that these eager, highly idealistic young men and women might fail, just as Don Quixote failed.  But he felt—passionately—that they should be given a chance.

 

“This is what I mean by goodness,” he wrote.

 

These men have their share of weaknesses and lusts.  But preponderantly and devotedly they are in love with Cuba’s incompleteness, and with the task (they have all risked life for it) of Cuba’s self-fulfillment as a people.  Alas!  Since they are men and women, there is nothing necessarily permanent in this goodness  If the day comes when they love Cuba possessively for what it gives them, for what they have given it, and for what it is now, they will cease to be good leaders.



Photograph by Alberto Korda [Public domain]

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History, Non-fiction

These bells of doom sound often in the history of American foreign policy and if anyone doubts this they could start by reading Bitter Fruit, the extremely well-documented story of the 1954 American conceived, inspired, financed, led and dictated coup in Guatemala that set a precedent for future U.S. efforts at ‘regime change’ throughout the world.

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Fiction

I’m hesitant to write a less than glowing review of Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters because I’m such an admirer of much of his other work.  And the novel begins in a way that only raised my expectations.  The fantastic dialogue—so cryptic and quippy and spot-on, revealing levels of tacit understanding between the speakers while leaving the reader both wondering and hurrying to catch up—is perfect for this fictional world of renegade turncoat spies and other outcasts that form an international class of interloping social detritus. 

 

This dialogue along with the suggestive—yet elusive—description of place enhances the strange yet very specific feel of post-civil war West Africa, where the story begins, a part of that huge and troubled continent that seems to be permanently awash in the residues of madness and poverty and the limitless tragedies these two incorrigible factors always spawn.

 

Having lived next door in Liberia right before all hell broke loose soon after the rigged elections of 1985 much of what Johnson describes is familiar to me.  I used to dream of going back to Monrovia, dark and dangerous dreams imbued with the threat of chaos. 

 

In Johnson’s novel Roland Nair—whose name alone conjures up Warren Zevon’s Headless Thompson Gunner, the archetypal white mercenary who ends up haunting all civil conflicts everywhere—is supposed to be Danish (just as Zevon’s character was Norwegian) even though he travels on an American passport.  So from the very beginning nothing is certain, least of all anyone’s loyalty to anyone else. 

 

Nair gets sent to Freetown by the NIIA (a fictional NATO intelligence agency) with the purpose of finding out what his old friend Michael Adriko is up to.  Nair allows Adriko (with whom he served in some unclarified capacity in Afghanistan) to seduce him with his scheme to sell phony processed uranium, as well as his more mundane plans to marry a girl from Colorado—his former commanding officer’s daughter—in his native village, somewhere in the mountainous region of the Uganda-Congo border.

 

At the same time that Nair is betraying Adriko by not only keeping tabs on him—while reporting none of what he has discovered about Adriko to his bosses in Brussels—he is also falling in love with Adriko’s fiancée and betraying the NIIA by arranging to sell classified information to anyone willing to buy it.

 

So much for the premise of the story which pretty much ends where it began. 

 

Long before that though the plot—what there is of plot in this study not so much of character, but of characters—derails.  The fourth and final part of the book relates the captivity, release and breakdown of these characters, none of which can withstand much serious scrutiny.  In some ways the book boils down—as far as what it’s supposed to really be about—to questions of loyalty and commitment.  When Nair and Adriko reconnect somewhere in the Newada Mountains Adriko assures Nair that he was never involved with Tina, the lover Nair left behind in Europe:

 

 Michael said:

“And I was never with Tina.  Even if I was with her before you came along, I would have told you.”

“I believe you.  I was crazy.  And there’s something I want to say as well.  Are you listening?”

“I hear you.”

I sat up and looked straight at him and tried hard to make him believe this—because it’s true—“I’d never grass a friend.  I might try and steal his girl and leave him to drown in shit while—well, while running off with his girl.  But I’m not a snitch.  Never.”

 

When this same scene—in essence at least—was practically repeated a few pages later, and so close to the end of the book, it became apparent that Johnson was trying to insist upon a ‘meaning’ for his story that, although laid out from the beginning, the story itself was not that terribly concerned about.  Once they do—spoiler alert!—make it back to Freetown on time to meet the buyers of Nair’s pilfered intelligence, Adriko says, “How much will you profit, Nair, how much money?”


“One hundred K US. That’s the price for betraying absolutely everyone.”

“But, Nair—you didn’t betray me.”

“Not quite.  Not yet.”

“The slate is clean between us.”

“I tried to steal your girl.”

“I take it as a compliment.”

 

And so, in a sense, no harm was done. 

 

The story finishes inconclusively, leaving in the air the prospect of another Nair-Adriko adventure, somewhere in the world.  The problem is, the story’s playfully sardonic treatment of everyone and all things—while entertaining—leaves the reader wondering not so much what any of this matters, but rather, who cares? 

 

 

p.s.  The untimely early death of Denis Johnson on the 24th of May of this year makes me feel even worse about writing a less than glowing review of one of his books.  I repeat:  this is because I am such an admirer of so much of his work, the almost epic Tree of Smoke and the equally large-in-scope novella Train Dreams, even the curious and ghostly Resuscitation of a Hanged Man and Johnson’s first novel, Angels, which suggested the potential and nature and inclinations of this fantastic writer, as well as some of the stories in Jesus’s Son

 

But some of the works that great writers produce are better than others, and even the greatest writers have produced less than fully satisfactory works.  And a review like this one is nothing more than my own humble assessment and opinion, with which anyone is free to differ.

 

 

 

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