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DANCING TO “ALMENDRA” by Mayra Montero


by Mayra Montero & translated by Edith Grossman

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2007
ISBN: 0-374-10277-5
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Organized crime and disorganized personal relations are tightly intertwined in the prolific Cuban-born Puerto Rican author’s latest (The Captain of the Sleepers, 2005, etc.).

It begins most auspiciously, with a killer first sentence that links the death of a New York mobster with the ill-fated escape of a hippopotamus from the Havana zoo. Nothing that follows is nearly as entertaining, though Montero presents a lively bevy of mutually involved characters, notably 22-year-old newspaper reporter Joaquín Porrata, who has retreated from his family’s numerous dysfunctions (philandering dad, unstable mom, sexually befuddled younger sister) to work for a local daily, where he’s “allowed to interview only comedians and whores.” Acting on a tip from an old pal, who works at the zoo, Joaquín connects dots that suggest crime boss Umberto Anastasia was whacked before he could receive a “message”—presumably sent by Havana-based crime lord Meyer Lansky and his boys, to discourage any rival gangs from muscling in on their casinos (it’s the late-1950s, when crime still paid quite well). A parallel story, narrated by a one-armed circus performer (Yolanda, for whom Joaquín falls hard), unearths many more secrets, endangering Joaquín and his loved ones—and, alas, permits the narrative to wander all over the Western hemisphere, distracting the reader’s focus as it sedulously fills in blanks. Montero has done her homework, and the novel is filled with bizarre characters (a gay choreographer afflicted with leprosy is by no means the most outré), rapid-fire action and enough blood and guts to satisfy a cage of hungry lions.

There’s simply too much of everything. Montero captures the reader’s attention, but the story flies apart before the reader can take hold of it.