A Cuban youth flees to the U.S. with his family after Fidel Castro’s revolution and builds a hard shell of stoic strength as he grows up.
In this debut fictional memoir, Prol details the early life of F.P. Romero, who, an imaginary editor notes, died of an aneurysm at age 60. Born in Havana in 1954 to a well-off family, Romero sees his fortunes decline after Castro comes to power and his father is arrested. Permitted to leave the country in 1961, the family arrives in Miami with assets of $5. They learn English by listening to Berlitz LPs and watching American television shows. As “smiling chameleons,” they adapt to American life to various degrees. Romero’s father—“the monarch in exile”—lands a teaching job in Baltimore and sends Romero and his brother to military school there. Romero’s mother, an attorney in Cuba, struggles to accept her new homemaker status in the U.S. and is stricken with breast cancer. After the family makes a trip back to Miami to show off its success, she dies a painful death. Romero spirals downward, hanging out with “greasers” and hooligans in junior high school and beyond. There’s teenage car racing, fighting, and getting high sniffing rug cleaner from a bag. A few chapters of violence, cruelty, and crime have been lost, the editor notes, but the story resumes with Romero drifting through early adulthood with a music band, ending on a happy note when he moves into a plush apartment with his girlfriend. He’s developed a protective coat of armor from life’s struggles, “like the hardening of a tortoise’s shell as it ages.” Prol has written an evocative, modern immigrant coming-of-age tale that’s subtle and finely drawn. Gentle, fish-out-of-water humor, such as Romero’s father handing out canned Spam and veggies to trick-or-treaters on Halloween, balances nicely with poignant moments (Romero listening to his mother’s “moans and cries of pain” as she slowly dies of cancer). Prol gets his stoic philosophy across unobtrusively along with keen observations of human nature—“most of us are walking contradictions,” he asserts. His prose can be sad, funny, ironic, and even lyrical, as when describing the young Romero’s love of nature in Maryland. The chapters are interspersed with surprisingly good poems that tend to the mellow and melancholic.
An economically written novel that packs a punch about a young immigrant soldiering on through life’s hardships.