TELEX FROM CUBA
By Rachel Kushner
Scribner. 322 pp. $25
Wonderful reviews have been coming thick and fast for "Telex From Cuba," and they're more than well deserved. This first novel by Rachel Kushner is a pure treat from the cover to the very last page. It's the kind of thing you should stock up on to give sick friends as presents; they'll forget their arthritis and pneumonia, I promise, once they walk into a land that's gone now, but not yet quite forgotten: Cuba in the last few years before Fidel Castro took over.
For those who remember those days, or even for those who take the Cuba story at second hand, the frame has always been presented to us as Democracy vs. Communism. Kushner (whose mother spent several childhood years in the compound of the United Fruit Co., which owned almost all of the eastern half of the island) swivels the camera for the reader. Forget Communism, she says, look past it, or better still, look just there, in the foreground, at the coastal villages of Preston and Nicaro. Preston is for the white employees of the United Fruit Co.: See their fancy houses and squadrons of servants, and out just beyond the edges, the shacks where Jamaican and Haitian workers live without running water? And over there is Nicaro. That's where they've started up the American nickel mine again. The whites who live there are a cut below, but they're still white, and they're living beyond their wildest dreams. And see that one wacky wife who was so scared of the tropics she brought along seven Dubuque canned hams in those huge triangular containers -- along with her loser husband and her three daughters -- just in case the food on this lush island might be inedible?