Unlike his characters, Elmore Leonard's writing has become bulletproof. Beloved by both publishing houses and Hollywood, the veteran genre writer has earned, through hard work and estimable talent, the reputation as one of America's foremost literary entertainers. With Cuba Libre, however, Leonard has produced what is not only his finest novel to date, but one that transcends the limits of its genre, and is worthy of being evaluated as literary fiction. Returning to an early phase of his career, Leonard has written not a contemporary slap-and-tickle comedy, but a captivating historical novel.
Known as a writer of contemporary crime genre pieces, Leonard's forte has been portraying a reliable conflict: a motley collection of intellectually challenged hoods with upwardly mobile aspirations and identifiable comic dialect try to score against a middle-class individual who is either untested in self-defense or is somehow over the hill. Watching the timid bourgeois or aged, retired warrior recognize his or her inner resources in battle against the inept hoods is both engaging and hilarious. Cuba Libre, however, eschews laughs to portray a society on the brink of massive social change.
The novel's action is bounded by two key events: the explosion of the Battleship Maine in Havana Harbor on 15 February 1898, and the charge of the Rough Riders (whose second-in-command was a then-obscure assistant secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt) in July of the same year.
Ben Tyler, raised on a Cuban sugar plantation, later became a Texas cowboy. When hard times befell him, he robbed banks. After serving time, Tyler encounters his erstwhile foreman, Charlie Burke, who proposes a scheme: import 125 horses to Cuba for sale at a fabulous profit. After agreeing, Tyler learns that the ship carrying the horses is also hiding arms for the Cuban insurrectos, desperate to throw off the yoke of Spanish colonial rule.
Arriving in Havana, Tyler encounters Roland Boudreaux, a fellow American and a fabulously wealthy, powerful and amoral sugar planter. What catches Tyler's eye, however, is Bourdreaux's gorgeous girlfriend, Amelia, whose youth and beauty scarcely conceal her calculative and ambitious nature.
A giant explosion soon rocks the island: the destruction of the Battleship Maine. Thrown into prison after a bar fight (and he suspects, owing to the influence of a jealous Boudreaux), Tyler encounters Virgil Webster, a marine private who survived the explosion. After weeks in prison, having witnessed the needless death of his close friend Charlie, Tyler, along with Webster, escapes, aided by the enigmatic Amelia.
Wanting only the recover the money promised him from the sale of the horses, Tyler finds himself enmeshed in a complex intrigue involving a false kidnap plot, insurrectos, freed slaves, greedy hanchmen, and a war between Spain and America.
Cuba Libre does for turn-of-the-century Cuba what Thomas Flanagan's Year of the French did for late eighteenth century Ireland: it portrays a multi-layered tug-of-war between the competing forces of Spain, America, and the indigenous Cuban society, each of which seeks cultural and political dominance. Yet, Leonard's sophisticatedly simple, economic prose manages to portray these events without burdening the reader with an "epic."
The contemporary significance of this novel is clear: the economic, political and cultural currents running through Cuba Libre invite comparison with Cuba's current plight. While the political forces of both left and right oversimplify the conflict, Leonard demonstrates that in addition to the stresses of competing ideologies, there is another force, amoral and self-interested: capitalism, embodied in the figure of the planter Boudreaux. Boudreaux doesn't care who wins, so long as he's allowed to conduct business. His support for the perceived winner isn't patriotism, it's a fiscal calculation. Inevitably the pawns of both political power brokers and capitalists, the Cuban peasants are also allowed their time on the stage of Leonard's narrative, reminding us that they, not the politicians, are the victims and beneficiaries of a struggle beyond their ken.
Cuba Libre succeeds where other plot-driven genre pieces fail: it provides a gallery of richly realized, emotionally engaging characters. It also offers an historical mirror against which we can compare contemporary events in the Caribbean. One hopes that the inevitable Hollywood treatment of this captivating tale is told with the care, delicacy, and depth that Leonard has achieved.