cover image Cuba Libre

Cuba Libre

Elmore Leonard. Delacorte Press, $23.95 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-385-32383-3

A departure from Leonard's usual Miami-Detroit axis, a return to his western-writing roots and possibly his most ambitious book yet, this is a dazzling play on and explication of the 1898 Spanish-American War. Arizona horse dealer (and ex-con bank robber) Ben Tyler joins his old boss, Charlie Burke, in a plan to sell horses (and, secretly, guns) in Cuba. When Tyler, in self-defense, kills a hotheaded Spanish officer, he and Charlie are flung into a hellish prison at the mercy of Guardia Civil Major Tavalera, easily one of Leonard's nastiest villains. Then the USS Maine blows up in Havana's harbor and the U.S. and Spain spin toward war, with Cuban insurrectos goading on the inevitable violence. Tyler becomes involved with an assortment of colorful characters: old mulatto Cuban patriot Victor Fuentes; American sugar planter Roland Boundreaux and his young mistress, Amelia Brown; Virgil Webster, a boyish Marine survivor of the Maine; Chicago newsman Neely Tucker (who occasionally serves as the book's chorus); Havana police detective Rudi Calvo; and rebel guerrilla chief Islero, who's Victor's half-brother. The plot gallops along from Havana to Natanzas to the jungle to Guantanamo Bay. Motivations are of course very tangled. In brilliantly laconic prose and expert flashbacks, Leonard depicts Spain's harsh suppression of Cubans (especially blacks), the Maine explosion, ambushes, chases, two shootings in Havana's Hotel Ingeletterra bar and the attack on Guantanamo Bay. Ben and Amelia's affair is sweet, funny and believable; and, if Ben's final affection for Cuba seems a bit strained, it also manages to generate another drop-dead Leonard last line. Leonard flashes less of his throwaway humor here than usual, but he clearly has great sympathy for almost all his characters--even Tavalera has real style--and readers will, too. This is the kind of book they will race through and then want to immediately re-read, slowly. Major ad/promo; BOMC and QPB selections; BDD audio; author tour. (Feb.)