KING BONGO

Thomas Sanchez, Author . Knopf $25 (320p) ISBN 978-0-679-40696-9

"We understand the economics of love," says Mrs. Armstrong, a sexy American socialite residing in Cuba. "To really sell a torch song, you've got to be willing to light yourself on fire." Like her, an entire gallery of wonderfully eccentric characters seems ready to go up in flames in this flamboyant noir epic by Sanchez (Mile Zero; Zoot-Suit Murders). It is 1957 in Havana, and glamorous, ambitious young insurance agent King Bongo ("he was a little man, but he had a big plan") is primed to sell a major policy to the owner of the legendary Tropicana nightclub. On New Year's Eve, he heads for the club, where his sister—the island's most glittery showgirl, known as the Panther—is performing. But before Bongo can do his business, a bomb goes off in front of the stage, and in the havoc the Panther disappears. To find her, Bongo must travel from colonial country clubs to squalid alleyways, challenged by sinister rivals like the nefarious Humberto Zapata, an official in the island's secret police force, and threatened by a constant undertone of seduction, violence and revolutionary stirrings. Sanchez's writing can evoke the hard-boiled masters of the past—he describes Havana's rows of houses, for example, as "old tarts posing for a group reunion shot in the glare of tropical sunlight"—though his stylings sometimes spin out of control ("Guys spilled the guts of their lies as beer foamed, whiskey flowed, rum drummed"). The occasional sloppiness aside, however, he succeeds in creating an independent world that is at once highly stylized and believable. (May 2)

Reviewed on: 04/07/2003
Release date: 04/01/2003
Genre: Fiction
Paperback - 320 pages - 978-0-679-73746-9
Open Ebook - 222 pages - 978-0-307-76610-6
Paperback - 978-2-07-034711-7
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