Review

Havana: An Earl Swagger Novel

by Stephen Hunter

Read an
Excerpt




I normally don't care to quote passages from the books that I
review for Bookreporter.com. I'm always afraid of giving something
away, or having it make little sense out of context, or (the most
likely occurrence) making a mistake in the transcription. There is
a passage in HAVANA, Stephen Hunter's new novel, that blew away all
such reservations and resistance, and that illustrates perfectly
why, when this man publishes a new novel, all other activity at
casa de Hartlaub ceases until the tale is read from cover to
cover. This particular paragraph is found near the end of the book,
an unforgettable collection of sentences in a novel full of
them:

"It is 4 a.m. on Zanja Street, the hour of Odudua, the dark
mistress of the underworld according to the cosmology that is
Santeria. Odudua is married to Obatala, whose job is to
finish creation; hers is to destroy it. As you might imagine, it is
not a happy marriage. So she wanders alone at night, deciding who
to take."

In these sentences, Hunter sets up the carnage that is to follow
and at the same time presents a cosmic rationale for what has gone
before, providing the reader with some inside knowledge in the
bargain and getting the job done with some unforgettable prose.
Hunter writes prosaically of death; his protagonist, Earl Lee
Swagger, is a walking contradiction, a man capable of great and
terrible violence yet who is not a violent man by nature. He simply
does that which must be done, and frequently is called upon to do
it.

HAVANA is set in 1953, when the island of Cuba is the subject of
business interests, legitimate and otherwise. A young would-be
revolutionary named Fidel Castro has attracted the interest of the
right and wrong people, and it is decided by some that he should be
done away with as an example. Others, however, feel he should come
under their protection. Swagger is recruited as the bodyguard for
an Arkansas congressman who is traveling to Cuba, ostensibly on a
fact-finding mission. This duty results in Swagger being dropped as
unwitting chum into a choppy diplomatic ocean, aware of his duties
on the surface but unaware of his real purpose in Cuba. In
actuality, Swagger has been brought to Cuba to assassinate Fidel
Castro before the young firebrand attracts too much of a following.
When events take an unexpected turn, however, Swagger finds himself
stranded in a land he doesn't know, with nothing but his wits ---
and the unexpected honor of a worthy adversary --- to see him
through.

Hunter continues his practice of placing Swagger within a
historical setting and letting each play off of the other.
Swagger's meeting with Ernest Hemingway, which takes little more
than a page to relate, is worth the price of admission alone.
Hunter's attention to detail makes the Havana of the 1950s come
alive. His style is interesting; he can be extremely funny at
times, but when describing Swagger his tone is unrelentingly grim,
and appropriately so. The contrasts, the change-ups, help move the
story along (not that it needs such assistance).

Hunter continues to expand the Swagger mythos with HAVANA, further
developing his character while keeping him true to what has
(recently) gone before. I cannot wait for what is to come.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011

Havana: An Earl Swagger Novel
by Stephen Hunter

  • Publication Date: November 30, -0001
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 0743238087
  • ISBN-13: 9780743238083