Though categorized as a memoir, the most compelling parts of this disjointed narrative concern the Cuba that the author has explored trying to come to terms with a story.
Butler (A Cuban Boxer's Journey: Guillermo Rigondeaux, from Castro's Traitor to American Champion, 2014) delivers colorful writing and insightful analysis, but a slight shift in perspective would have resulted in a better book about the author’s subject: Cuba and why some athletes choose to defect and others remain. Plainly an author with literary ambitions beyond journalism, Butler writes of the essence of boxing and his discovery of it, of his alcoholic father, and of the sense of mission that compelled him to visit Cuba, return multiple times, and put himself in political peril there. He is oddly reticent for a memoirist on other parts of his life, including his marriage, mentioned only as an afterthought as he details his relationship with a beautiful woman of Cuban descent. Butler invokes many literary antecedents, not only the obligatory Hemingway, but also Kundera, Calvino, and Strindberg. Rather than enhancing his portrait of Cuba, its ineffable beauty and sorrow, its athletes who face a dilemma in which there is collateral damage to friends and family, its women who are as available as they are irresistible, his excursions away from his focus on the island only serve to distract. “What’s a million dollars to the love of eight million Cubans?” the author quotes Olympic boxing champ Teófilo Stevenson, the Muhammad Ali of Cuba, who spurned more than that to fight his American counterpart (but who only consented to an interview with the author for money). Yet for the woman who would become his mistress, “Cuba was a bear trap where the only means of escape required amputating vital portions of her soul.” The book is by no means a political polemic but a nuanced portrait of the grays where reality lies between the black and white.
When Butler maintains his focus on Cuba, vivid passages and provocative experiences illuminate an island of ambiguity.