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Dirty Havana Trilogy

Pedro Juan Gutierrez

Dirty Havana Trilogy

Author:Pedro Juan Gutierrez
Publisher:Farrar, Straus & Giroux

By Rupert Wondolowski | Posted 2/7/2001

Dirty Havana Trilogy is Pedro Juan Gutierrez's failed, claustrophobic attempt at writing a picaresque novel. For a novel of this type to succeed, its roguish main character must be engaging; "Pedro Juan," the narrator of these unrelated episodes, comes across as merely self-absorbed and sex-crazed. When the likes of Louis-Ferdinand Céline or Henry Miller--writers who knew their way around a picaresque novel--give a narrator their own name, they seem to be playing with the reader, saying that art is heightened reality. In this book it just adds to the flat, diarylike feel of the writing.

The character Pedro Juan is a former journalist who hustles on the streets of Havana in the mid-'90s during the recession that engulfed Cuba after the Soviet Union's collapse. He claims to have lost his job because he refused to be censored, but as he wanders from seedy vignette to seedy vignette, trying to have sex with every sentient being in his vicinity, you begin to suspect some more mundane reason--like getting caught hunching on the pencil sharpener or depositing liquid DNA in the file cabinet. In more capable (or sicker) hands, Pedro Juan's tales of trying to force himself sexually on his lesbian friends and getting off on watching others have sex in public places could be entertaining, but here it just feels improbable and grotesque.

A street-level depiction of everyday people in Cuba dealing with the crunch of world economic forces should be fertile ground for a novel, but Gutierrez can't pull it off. Instead of an expansive, eye-opening experience of a richly detailed imagined world, the reader feels caught in a repeating, ever-shrinking tape loop playing in the claustrophobic mind of the narrator/author. The characters are one-dimensional objects who exist solely to react to the narrator's sex drive. Other than Pedro Juan's johnson, the only character who gets fleshed out is an old guy who used to go by the name of Superman and masturbate onstage for money while watching a blonde girl have sex offstage. He is now retired, having lost his body from his testicles down due to diabetes-related gangrene.

With what does all this leave the reader? A void--and not a well-expressed existential void, but a void born of a lack of imagination. I'll let Pedro Juan's own words sum it up: "Nothing is made up. . . . Not a single lie. I only change the names. That's my profession: shitraker. . . . And it's not as if I'm searching for anything hidden in the shit. Usually I find nothing." At least he's honest.

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