The Halfway House
Just as many Latin American fiction fans started to hope that the Obama administration might introduce changes in the U.S. relationship with Cuba that might lead to better exchange of people and culture--more Cuban crime fiction, please--along comes the publication of Guillermo Rosales' The Halfway House, a blistering reminder that world-fiction readers have a long way to go just to catch up with the island nation's back catalog. Rosales immigrated to America in 1979, fleeing--like the compatriots to whom he is most often compared, Carlos Montenegro and Reinaldo Arenas--Cuba's repressive government. A journalist and budding novelist in Cuba, in America Rosales was diagnosed with schizophrenia and lived most of his Miami life in boarding houses for the mentally ill, horrific places where he lodged among the lowest levels of American society. Rosales committed suicide at 47 in 1993, leaving behind only his first novel, El Juego de la Viola, and The Halfway House, which is translated from the Spanish by Anna Kushner and recently reissued by New Directions.
Most of that bio material comes from José Manuel Prieto's indispensable forward to this edition, as Rosales' life and work is notoriously underdocumented. With only two books to his name, neither of which available in English until now, it's understandable why Rosales' name has remained undiscovered. The sparkling economy of his prose here should rectify that situation quickly. The Halfway House follows William Figueras, an educated young Cuban exile, into a Miami halfway house, and if any of Rosales' abodes were even partially as despicable as the one described here, the author's ability to recognize humanity inside himself is an act of Herculean will. William, who lives among the insane but is not of them, witnesses atrocity after atrocity inside the house, but in flashbacks recalls betrayals of self that may be even more devastating, articulated in reveries regarding others: "He'll never feel his heart go 'crack' in the face of an idea in which he firmly and desperately believed."
Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is the most obvious comparison, but House has more in common with Alexander Trocchi's Cain's Book and Céline's Journey to the End of the Night, books about a man's search for his complicity in increasingly dehumanizing worlds. Those novels, though, took the form of the junky confessional and the nihilistic epic, respectively. And Rosales--in deadly observant sentences, in surreptitiously brain-burrowing repetitions, in arresting juxtapositions of psychologically probing dreams and horrific reality--mines similar thematic territory inside of a fleeting 100 pages.