There has been a lot of prepublication buzz about THE HAVANA ROOM by Colin Harrison. Everything you may have heard about this novel is true. It will be superglued to your hands, and to your mind, from practically the minute you begin reading it. There is only one way that I can describe how good it really is. After opening the book one morning and reading the first 319 pages in one sitting, I set the book down, shoveled the ice off of the driveway, and ran a few errands, all the while wondering how it would end. I simply wanted to make the experience of reading this spellbinding novel last a bit longer; I did not want it to end.
The most important lesson that one can learn about life is that every act carries its own potential for disaster, and that while there are ways to cut the odds, the house holds all the cards. This is a lesson that Bill Wyeth learns, at the cost of dear coin, in THE HAVANA ROOM.
Wyeth is a fabulously successful real estate attorney, still on the ascending arc of a brilliant career, when he commits an act of simple, almost offhand, courtesy that results in personal disaster. Within weeks he has lost his job, his family and his respect, while each day tolls his ever-deeper descent into his personal maelstrom.
The unplanned randomness of his life finds him entering a Manhattan steak house --- we never really learn its name --- where he finds himself slowly drawn into the web of Allison Sparks, the restaurant's attractive, enigmatic manager, and the Havana Room, a separate room in the restaurant where entrance is on an invitation-only basis and where what goes on is a closely held secret.
Wyeth and Sparks slowly form a conversational relationship, a relationship that begins a fateful culmination on the day that Sparks asks Wyeth to represent her friend, Jay Rainey, in a real estate transaction that must be concluded by midnight of that day. Wyeth has reservations about the transaction and his role in the matter almost from the beginning. The transaction, which amounts to a land swap involving a Manhattan building for some prime Long Island acreage owned by Rainey, brings Wyeth closer to Sparks at the price of ensnaring him in a mysterious, complex scenario that accelerates his downward spiral.
Wyeth is buffeted by a number of complex forces, among them a powerful Chilean businessman, a frightening hip-hop mogul, a farmer found frozen to a bulldozer and, most significantly, Rainey's obsessions, including his peculiar fixation on a fourteen-year-old British girl. The nexus connecting these seemingly disparate elements is ultimately located in THE HAVANA ROOM, where the denouement has the potential to ultimately result in disaster or redemption.
One of the most fascinating elements of THE HAVANA ROOM is the way in which Harrison keeps the plates containing different plot threads spinning while hypnotizing the reader to the extent that one can still see them rotating long after the book is done, and Harrison has taken his plates and poles, packed them up and gone home. But it is not just the exquisite plotting of the book that makes it such a delight. Harrison says more in a sentence than many writers do in a chapter, and more in a chapter than others do in an entire book. Harrison at one point gives, in a little more than three pages, a summary of the evolution of Manhattan real estate from its inception to the present. Is it complete? No. But after reading it, one could walk along Broadway in Times Square and feel the sense of history upon which the area is built.
At another point, when discussing Sparks, Harrison presents an interesting and bitingly accurate social and emotional commentary regarding the trajectory of the lives of the young, single women who come to work and live in Manhattan. His dissertation is only a few paragraphs long, yet contains more truth than any multiple DVD set chronicling a season of Sex and the City.
Harrison also has a way of making any character, no matter how secondary their role or fleeting their appearance, vibrant and real. This is true whether it involves a street punk on a subway stairway, an ex-cop running a down-at-the-heels diner, or a rap groupie strung out on heroin and the proximity of fortune. Perhaps Harrison's greatest strength, however, is his ability to infuse his characters with a quiet but strong nobility that enable them to make the best of a bad situation. In the end, all is not as it seems --- and if salvation is not at hand, there is at least the promise of it.
THE HAVANA ROOM may well be Harrison's breakthrough novel --- it certainly has that potential. It is a stunning triumph for him and a feast for the reader. Very highly recommended.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 15, 2004