Rum, a twist of lime, and Coca-Cola. A Cuba Libre. With two
ingredients uniquely Caribbean and the other as American as apple
pie, it's a drink characteristic of the cultures it represents.
Elmore Leonard's CUBA LIBRE is much the same: part western, part
historical fiction, and indicative of two divergent cultures on the
edge of conflict.
Like any good mixologist, Leonard blends the elements of this
refreshing concoction with such skill that the seamless end-product
satisfies on many levels.
It's 1898, the battleship Maine has just been sunk, and Cuba is on
the verge of the Spanish-American War. Ben Tyler, enlisted by his
old friend, Charlie Burke, accompanies a boatload of horses to
Havana for sale to a wealthy American landowner named Roland
Boudreaux. Unbeknownst to the authorities, the boat also contains a
shipment of guns for the Cuban insurrectos.
Leonard has crafted a unique hero in Tyler --- tough, smart, brave
and loyal, but not free from tarnish. He's spent time in prison for
bank robbery, but the banks he robbed contained the accounts of
those who owed him money, and his "withdrawals" were only for the
amounts he was owed. In a kill-or-be-killed world, Tyler has taken
action. But he's paid for his crimes and is looking for a new life.
Charlie Burke offers him that chance.
Burke and Tyler meet Victor Fuentes, Boudreaux's personal
assistant, proceed to a bar to settle up with Boudreaux, are given
the runaround and leave unpaid. But it's there that Tyler's life
takes a couple of turns.
He meets Boudreaux's mistress, Amelia Brown, a sassy, beautiful
woman with a mind of her own. Sparks fly in more ways than one.
Tyler kills a Spanish army officer in self-defense. Shortly
thereafter, he and Burke are taken to a Cuban prison by the head of
the Guardia Civil, Lionel Tavalera, on the suspicion of being
Tavalera embodies an evil ruthlessness. And he's really smart. He
doesn't have much love for the Spanish occupiers, sees the Cuban
insurgents as enemies, and just plain hates the Americans. But he
has the cunning to play all sides against one another, believing
that in doing so, he'll land on his feet no matter the outcome of
the impending conflict.
Just when you think that Tyler has met his match, help comes in the
forms of the Amelia Brown and Victor Fuentes. These characters
shrug off the conventionalities of most popular fiction, drawing
you deeper into the tale, eagerly anticipating their next
With CUBA LIBRE, Leonard abandons the familiar territory of the
concrete jungle but the Cuban jungle proves fertile ground for him
as well. We learn much about the Spanish-American War along the
way, too. And the Leonard hallmark is still in place: witty,
Elmore Leonard started out writing westerns 34 novels ago. This
foray back 100 years proves he has not lost his feel for the genre.
Early on, when Ben Tyler asks Charlie Burke, "Why me?" Burke
replies, "you've rode the high country and had a price on your
head. I feel if I'm gonna break the law I ought to have a partner
knows what it's like...somebody that's et the cake."
Leonard has et the cake, and we are all the better for it. With
CUBA LIBRE, we can all have our cake and eat it too.
Reviewed by Vern Wiessner on January 21, 2011