Living Through Another Cuba

The Cuban Affair
Nelson DeMille

While I’m fighting the urge to begin with a lament, I might be better off with a trite observation: there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing.

I may, in fact, have established that I should limit myself to one novel per year by Nelson DeMille,

What brings me to this conclusion is finishing his most recent two novels within a 6-month period. Everything I’d started to notice before–the too familiar structure, the limited number of character types, the wise-ass remarks–is here, but there’s something else going on, too, something apparent only by reading these book in the published order.

What we have here is perfect example of what, in the music business, I’d call new label syndrome. That’s when the wildly successful act switches labels and you realize that a) the last record on the old label was phoned in and b) you’re not going to get anything new just because the imprint on the spine changed.

One subtle detail in our tale is that you need a few Wall Street paydays to own one of these, even as a business.

That’s not entirely true because we have a new lead character, Daniel “Mac” McCormick. Strip away the name, though, and we’ve met him before: combat veteran (Afghanistan has replaced Vietnam), bit of a lone wolf, fearless in the face of peril, a magnet for a pretty woman, all wrapped up in a package of questionable attitude and endless wise-cracks. Mac McCormick, meet John Corey, John Sutter and Paul Brenner.

There is, allegedly,  one major difference between those last three characters and Mac–they are all Baby Boomers while Mac is a member of Generation XI understand the business need for such a switch. After all, it’s poor business to ignore a changing marketplace. When your author is 75, characters at midlife may appear young and yet be completely alien to younger people.

Mac, though, is indistinguishable from DeMille’s older characters. We are supposed, I think, to chalk this up to the great levelling influence of experiencing armed conflict and Mac has an employee/sidekick, Jack Colby, who’s a Vietnam veteran to prove that. But the giveaway is in the nickname. My dad, almost a generation older than DeMille, was widely referred to as Mac; I’ve never been nor have I ever met anyone who’s been called that.

Old town Havana. There are prettier, government issued photos, but this is more in keeping with the story and DeMille’s descriptions.

Mac operates his own business. He’s a charter boat captain based in Key West, Florida, but that’s not the whole story. A scion of a wealthy Maine family, Mac was educated at Bowdoin and earned a nice sum on Wall Street before packing it in to do something real. That would be a couple of tours of duty in Central Asia and the experience was enough to send him off to the Conch Republic.

At the outset Mac is approached by Carlos, no surname necessary, a lawyer from Miami and a member in good standing of the Cuban-American community. Though things are changing, and a US/Cuba thaw’s acomin’, some Cuban-Americans remain committed to facilitating the end of the Castro regime. Carlos’ clients want to hire Mac’s boat for a fishing tournament but it’s really so they have a means of escaping the island.

Why would anyone consider this? Well, for one,  there’s a big payday promised–part of the deal is to expropriate $60 million in stashed US currency. Mac is promised 5%. Then there’s the girl. There’s always a girl, at least in books like this. Sara Ortega is a killer package: Latin beauty, professional prowess (she’s an architect), intelligent and assertive. It helps the narrative that she’s also committed to her cause if a bit short of the zealot markers set out by her co-conspirators.

So Mac agrees and the plan is revealed, at least some of the plan. He’s to travel separately to Cuba from the boat, as part of a travel group organized by Yale. Sara will also be on the trip and, so the cover story goes, they’ll hit it off and scamper away from the group, seemingly for love’s sake but in reality to liberate the cash and strike a blow for freedom.

Paradoxically, the best place to see a vintage American car is in Cuba. Here a 57 or 58 Chevy on the Malecon.

It’s never that easy and the plan, which was never totally revealed, keeps unveiling, making life more difficult as time passes. Mac was hired, in large part, for his combat experience and he’s called upon repeatedly to assimilate new information, recalibrate and revise.

There are more than a few plot complications. The goal changes–more than once. Critical information is dribbled out at less than convenient intervals. The tour guide supplied by the Cuban government will rat out our heroes unless he ‘s paid off and is allowed to indulge his lust.

It’s a heady brew topped off with flight, fight, boats, ‘copters and automobiles–all the things you need in a modern American tall tale. It’s not fair to talk about suspending disbelief but at times credulity was stretched very thin.

While I understand the desire to attract a new or broader audience some things didn’t work for me. Mac’s back story for one. For a downeaster he cracks as wise as any outer borough flatfoot, absent the malaprops required of characters from the NYPD.  I never completely bought that Mac attended Bowdoin, although I buy the idea that  Little Ivy alums take some delight in torturing grads of the big 7.

Elizabeth McCord, Madam Secretary, in Havana or, more likely, New York, where the show is shot.

I suppose I’m also a bit tired of DeMille’s politics. For quite a while now there has been more and more space devoted to a view of the individual and the world that is grounded less in philosophy than in current GOP politics.

It’s just entertainment, I know. But I was taught our defenses are down when we say that. It’s too political when the cast of Madam Secretary ventures to Cuba to end the  embargo but it doesn’t matter when our novel’s heroes trade rationales for bringing down the regime. Right.

If this were truly a tall tale all would be restored and the girl, gold and glory would follow our hero.

Sometimes the lesson is that settling is okay, too.





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