Codrescu (English/Louisiana State Univ.), prolific author and NPR journalist, treats us to a 12-day idiosyncratic vacation 90 miles and a world apart from the US. The pope’s visit to Cuba early last year was the provocation. Not to be influenced by the papal presence, Codrescu (Hail, Babylon: In Search of the American City at the End of the Millennium, 1998. etc.), with his NPR team, beat His Holiness by several days to the “laboratory of pre-post-communism.” Our man in Havana found the capital to be in physical decay and the population largely intriguing and warm, from the spellbinding, soothsaying Babalaos to the street-smart teenage hustlers. From the cafes in Havana to the mysterious lairs of Santiago de Cuba, he can report that reverence for the Maximum Leader is less than sweeping. The “Querido Commandante Che Guuevara” song, however, is quite prevalent. Afro-Cuban religiosity, rum and dollars are more popular than socialism, and venery apparently tops all the charts. Codrescu, of course, comes by his dubiety of things Marxist quite naturally, having spent his tender ye+ars in the Romania of Ceausescu. Also natural to him is a felicitous style. There’s the distinct aroma of gonzo mixed with dialectics and a pinch of Swiss Family Perelman, but it’s all Codrescu. People take precedence over plot. (A set-up about trouble with a picture album never pays off). The author and his crew meet a variety of folk whom he invests with appeal. The octogenarian comic Al Lewis and the great El Duque Hernandez bracket snapshots of boys selling Cohibas and girls selling pleasant tarriance. The text is punctuated by photos by David Graham and poetry composed collectively by Codrescu’s pilgrims. As with the best of the travel genre, the tour is personal and selective. It’s often engaging and enlightening, too. A natural-born journalist provides an entertaining, under-the-covers tour. (16 pages color photos, 40 b&w photos).