In my high school history classes, I remember learning about Mesopotamia (the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, fourth millennium B.C.); the Magna Carta (England, 1215); and World War I. In college, I took a course called Greek and Roman Values to satisfy my history requirement. I didn’t get much formal education regarding current events post-November 11, 1918.
This is why, in large part, I enjoyed Nelson DeMille’s new novel, “The Cuban Affair” (September 2017), so much. I learned so much intriguing history about Cuba, and the international politics surrounding it, in DeMille’s work of fiction.
DeMille traveled to Cuba as field research for this book, and he wonderfully incorporates the local colors and flavors from that trip into “The Cuban Affair.” As I read this book, I really felt Cuba. DeMille engaged all my senses with his descriptions of the climate, architecture and overall feel of the Caribbean island nation. Also, I didn’t realize how close Cuba is to Key West, Florida: just 90 miles.
I really enjoyed learning about Key West too. As always, DeMille gives his main character, Mac, a former military man, a wry sense of humor. (I don’t think you can write a Nelson DeMille book review and not use the word “wry.”) I loved Mac’s wry description of his bar hangout in Key West, occurring early in the novel: “The place was starting to fill up…Freaks, geeks, loveable weirdos, and a few Hemingway look-alikes. He used to live here, and you can see his house for ten bucks. You can see mine for free. Bring a six-pack.” These words helped me see the scene Mac inhabits, and gave me a sense of Key West’s laid-back, quasi-Lost Generation vibe.
I found Mac to be a fairly well-developed character. I appreciated his social-cultural reflections on Maine, where he grew up, and his current hometown of Key West, along with his perspective on military life and, by extension, Afghanistan. Mac struck me as a man who had been to war, as his character was intended. Two examples of Mac’s reflections: “Close by was the Zero Mile Marker for U.S. Highway One, the literal end of the road that started in Maine. I’ve had a lot of profound thoughts about that, usually fueled by a few beers,” and “Portland, though, was a good place to grow up and it’s a good place to grow old. It’s the years in between that are a challenge to some people.” (Pretty deep, right? I found myself reflecting on my own “years in between.”)
At the same time, Mac seemed older than 35, the age he was supposed to be. That’s pretty much how old I am, and some of his character behaviors (or lack of behaviors) didn’t ring true to me.
For example, Mac didn’t have cell phone service in Cuba. Shouldn’t that have driven him crazy? Not being able to text, not logging in to Facebook, not playing Hearthstone? Also, Mac goes out of his way to make snide remarks about novelist Richard Neville, who is a thinly veiled fictional version of Nelson DeMille (I love how DeMille made the last names similar!). DeMille may have been having some fun with his storied alter ego, but it was hard for me to believe Mac really would have cared enough about Richard Neville to prank him with a sweaty Hemingway T-shirt.
Much of the plot of “The Cuban Affair,” once Mac gets to Cuba, depends on a series of circuitous events happening. All these events—from hoped-for encounters to code words to restored Buicks—seem a little convoluted. None of that bothered me, though, because I so appreciated the taste of Cuba and U.S./Cuban history that DeMille serves up in his engaging story. I believe, though, that you need to read this story with some suspension of disbelief. Don’t think too critically about the practicality of the various plot points, and you’ll enjoy it.
It’s a fun story, overall, and funny too. Later in the story, the anti-Castro Cuban “godfather” Eduardo explains to Mac, “‘Almost all Cubans believed that the Castro regime would not last more than a year. That the Americans would not allow a Communist country to exist off its shores’”—to which Mac sardonically considers, “Why not? We’ve got California and Vermont.” I laughed out loud, friends. Why not, indeed?
As an aside, I liked the cover design. I thought the turquoise background featuring red palm trees, one of which showed Mac’s boat, correlated beautifully with the story. Turquoise brings to mind the Florida Keys; red signals Communism. The bright color palette stands out from DeMille’s previous books, many of which present darker, more ominous palettes (“The General’s Daughter,” “Plum Island,” “Up Country”).
I have read nearly all of DeMille’s books, and “The Cuban Affair” is one of my favorites because, to me, it felt fresh and different. I also sensed the hours upon hours of research DeMille had put into this Cuban adventure, and I appreciated that a lot. “The Cuban Affair” is a worthy read.
Photo credit: Simon & Schuster
Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s newest short fiction e-book, “What Happens Next.” A story that’s heartfelt, relevant and can’t-put-it-down good.