Tales of Havana, from a native son.
The unnamed narrator, much like the semi-autobiographical Pedro Juan of Gutiérrez’s two previous books (Dirty Havana Trilogy and Tropical Animal, 2005, etc.), opens this collection with a dispassionate re-telling of former girlfriend Silvia’s rape and its consequences. He and Silvia break up; he then spends the next ten years drunk, nursing his wounds and inflicting them on others through sadistic, anonymous sex. In the 18 present-day stories, the narrator is 50 years old; married to Julia (a microbiologist who works at a pizzeria, the only job available to her); and somewhat recovered from his rejection by Silvia. When he is not painting, writing or navigating Havana’s privations—what food that can be bought goes rancid while he waits for a bus that doesn’t arrive—he wanders Havana’s Malecón district and engages strangers in conversation. He befriends various misfits: a broken-down boxer who minds the children while his wife prostitutes herself with tourists; an old woman who once worked for the CIA and now lives on $10 a month; the squatters who live on the staircase of his apartment building; prostitutes he knows and some he doesn’t; a child on a bus, fascinated by a hearse. Mostly he searches for rum and sex, of which there is no shortage. Sometimes the narrator finds beauty: in a flock of ducks flying north, in his struggle landing a 20-pound snapper. But the last exit visa has long since been handed out in Hubert Selby territory, and the narrator remains in the gutter, staring at . . . the gutter. With a hedonistic nihilism that makes Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski look like starry-eyed teenagers, Gutiérrez strives to stare unblinkingly into the abyss. Absent the artistry of his literary predecessors, however, he never makes the reader understand why his narrator doesn’t just jump.
Pungent and pitiful.