Book Review of Telex From Cuba

From New York Times
Author is daughter of locals Peter and Pinky Kushner
Now Available in Paperback

July 8, 2009 Ukiah, Mendocino County, North California

In the early 1950s, a doll called Scribbles shook up the toy industry. Her face had no features of its own but could be sketched on with a special marker, washed clean and drawn on again. Creepy as this may sound, she’s a handy metaphor for creating a self in an uncertain environment like the one in Rachel Kushner’s multilayered and absorbing first novel, “Telex From Cuba.” Here a little American girl plays with her Scribbles the way Madame Defarge knits, while the international drifters around her settle in to bury pasts that include murder, adultery and neurotic meltdown. Meanwhile, Cuba itself is being remade; President Prio is replaced by the Americans’ favorite, Batista, and the Castro brothers gather revolutionaries in the hills of Oriente Province.

For the last half-century, Cuba has been America’s cultural Other, a nearby example of what capitalists dread most (Communism! revolution! beards!). But before that, it was America’s outpost. Most of Kushner’s story takes place in the sweltering canebrakes and comfortable homes of the expatriates who run the United Fruit Company and prosperous nickel mines of Oriente Province. A large cast of latter-day colonials employ Cubans in their homes and import Jamaican workers for the hardest jobs; they dab on expensive Jean Patou Colony perfume, mix as little as possible with the natives — including Batista, who’s a mulatto — and pride themselves on treating hirelings better than they think they have to.

Surprisingly, racism turns out to be a two-way street, even in a country where the United Fruit Company controls the roads: Cubans think Americans are mongrels.

The expats further separate themselves into classes, represented here by the elite Stiteses, the oddball middle-class Lederers and the violent Allains, poor refugees from Louisiana. Class and race may be, as one character describes the Tropic of Cancer, “divisions on a surface that is indifferent to … borders, that can hold no object in place” — but the only society the Americans can imagine is one based on those divisions, and to them every American’s status in Cuba is higher than in the United States. Cue the revolution and disaster.

Kushner’s title is somewhat misleading; the novel’s real draws are its complex relationships and well-researched cultural context, not the big telex-worthy events. Key rebellions like the 1953 attack on the Moncada barracks in distant Santiago de Cuba go virtually unnoticed in the American enclaves, but Kushner’s sharp observations about human nature and colonialist bias provide a deep understanding of the revolution’s causes. The chief observers in Oriente are children: K. C. Stites, who narrates his chapters from the perspective of old age and paradise lost, and Everly Lederer, an awkward, bookish girl with Coke-bottle glasses whose idea of the tropics comes from “Treasure Island.” They reveal, of course, far more than they understand. Through their friendships and crushes — K. C. for Everly, Everly for a black houseboy — Kushner shows how the classes and races might be connected if the adult world were put together differently. In the children’s fluid worldview, it’s easy to see why young Americans both cling to luxury and sympathize with the rebels in the hills; K. C.’s brother even runs off to join the Castros, much to his parents’ dismay.

When Kushner’s focus pulls away from childhood and looks through grown-up eyes, some nastier (and juicier) secrets are revealed. Every suburb breeds its own hell. While many of the American wives drink far too much, the most attractive among them suffers from such insecurity that she drifts into an affair with a Cuban whoremonger and nickel miner who treats her as shabbily as he does his workers. Other Americans speculate about the man’s homosexuality, but then they also suspect the Castros; Raúl is considered “a fruity type” (a shameless pun, given that Oriente is run largely by the United Fruit Company). And even K. C.’s father, a gentleman so proper that he wears a white suit jacket to fight a fire, has torrid liaisons.

Keep reading at The New York Times

See also: Pinky refers us to her daughter’s latest – a review of Nelson Algren here