Friday, July 13, 2012

Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Lost it to the Revolution, by T.J. English

I have a continual fascination with the island of Cuba: the music, the history, the food, the way they keep vintage American cars running for 50 years.  It's a shame that the country has been run by a nasty dictator for decades now, but I'd love to visit the place.

In Havana Nocturne, T.J. English tells the rather lurid story of the empire the Mafia built in Havana, and the parallel story of Castro's revolution.  So you have three groups of glamorous murderers: the Mob, led by Meyer Lansky, the government of corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista, and the revolutionaries trudging through the jungle toward Havana under the leadership of Fidel Castro.  All three make for great stories,  but the most entertaining, of course, is the Mob. Lansky, wiseguy entrepreneur, is such a charismatic character that you can't help but root for him, even when he's clearly a rotten human being.

I do wish more attention had been paid to the nightclubs and performers, which is what I find most interesting.  The Havana nightlife, as English describes it, is laid out in concentric circles of respectability.  At the big casinos, Cuban artists like Xavier Cugat, Celia Cruz and Perez Prado perform alongside American stars like Sinatra and Dean Martin.  In smaller rooms, Cuban jazz greats perform "Cubop" (I've never heard anyone outside of this book use that term, but I like it) for the late-night crowd.  Outside the center of the city, you get strip clubs and fancy bordellos.  On the outskirts, in the barrio Colon, there were live sex shows.  The most famous was at the Shanghai Theater, where a performer they called "Superman" would jump on stage in a Superman cape and have sex with women.  The guy got his nickname from what was, by all accounts, an abormally enormous cock.  And even further off the beaten path were similar clubs specializing in homosexual sex acts. Sex is a recurring theme throughout the book: both Sinatra and JFK are alleged to have been having orgies in their hotel rooms (Sinatra has to interrupt his orgy for a visit from a troop of Girl Scouts, JFK is watched through a one-way mirror by a gangster who later regrets not videotaping the session). The problem--and this is just my personal preference--is that everything I just described takes up less than ten pages of the book.  I would have preferred coverage of the music and the sex clubs be the focus, and background the other stuff.

The other thing that sticks in my craw a bit is that these three groups of evil murderers--Lansky's mob, Batista's dictatorship, Castro's revolution--are presented a bit too positively for my comfort.  There's not a lot of detail about actual murders and oppression of people, at least not until the final chapters.  Lansky comes off as a loveable rogue, Castro as a Hemingwayesque tough guy.  I had fun reading these accounts, but it wasn't the most comfortable kind of fun.


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