Editor’s Note: On May 2, Daniel Chavarria’s first novel, Adios Muchachos, a quick romp in the life of a Havanna bicycle whore, won an Edgar Award for Orginal Paperback Fiction. Unfortunately, Chavarria was not able to receive his tourist visa and could not make it to New York as he was planning to. His translator, Carlos Lopez, accepted the award on his behalf.
To commemorate the Edgar Award, we are re-running our review of Adios Muchachos.
Adventures in Girlwatching
I’ve made no secret on this site of my deep, abiding, and profound appreciation (that’s my term and I’m sticking to it) of Angelina Jolie, who will shortly be starring in Tomb Raider. Directed by Simon West, who did the hideous Con Air, and based on a video game, the film will no doubt be excessive, unwieldy, and contrived as hell and I am so there. I make no apologies on this score: screw Art I’m going specifically to watch Angie kick copious amounts of ass with guns strapped to her thighs. What can I tell you? Few things in this world are as attractive as a confident woman, and praise be to the zeitgeist that tough girls are back in vogue.
Venezuelan noir novelist Daniel Chavarría knows exactly of which I speak. His new book Adios Muchachos the first of his novels to be published in English, despite international acclaim and awards presents us with one of the most appealing heroines to come along in years, a Havana bicycle hooker named Alicia, who is beautiful, genuinely erotic, crafty, intelligent, and tough. In short, a real woman of the sort that is only now back in style but which should never have gone out. Chavarría, a former Classical lit professor who devoted much of his academic career to studying the origins and history of prostitution, welds his knowledge to elements of the best noir fiction unusual and often grotesque characters, crosses and double-crosses, erotic encounters, and world-wise characters without a trace of sticky altruism to create an appealing caper that begs to be filmed. The book has legs, not the least of which are Alicia’s.
Set in Havana in 1996, we follow Alicia as she goes about her vocation. The daughter of a former government official, now gone, and an educated, cosmopolitan mother now disenfranchised, Alicia is no mattress-backed working girl but rather a deliberate purveyor of the courtesan’s art. Heeled in the guise of a free-spirited student, she pedals her bicycle on the streets of Havana, one pedal gimmicked to fall off when she spies a prospective partner of the well-to-do variety. Playing the damsel in distress, Alicia takes the man home, where a deadly combination of her complicit mother’s home cooking, her (initial) refusal to accept money and gifts from her would-be rescuer, and her devastating charm almost never fail to render the poor schmuck utterly smitten. Alicia is a long-view kind of girl, her ultimate goal marriage and security.
Said security appears in the person of Victor King, a Canadian representative for a Dutch conglomerate and a dead ringer for Mel Gibson. In Cuba to broker a deal for a multimillion-dollar resort where tourists may participate in the salvage of sunken Spanish galleons off the coast, Victor is initially drawn into Alicia’s web but then turns around to offer her a lucrative position as a kept woman, servicing selected business contacts in the palatial estate loaned to him by his employers while Victor and his unseen wife Elizabeth play voyeuristic games on the other side of a two-way mirror. Seeing the upturn in her fortunes as a means of raising the ante in her own quest, Alicia agrees, approaching her new station with gusto and considerable creativity.
All is well until a freak accident places them both in dire jeopardy, threatening to crush both Victor’s lifelong plans to retrieve the galleons and any future for Alicia. What follows is a twisting, elaborate scheme involving a fake kidnapping, revelations of past deceptions and the concocting of new ones, sudden traps and pitfalls, disguises, an interesting use for deep-sea fishing equipment, and a corpse that simply will not behave. Throughout it all, Alicia’s strength and level-headedness are the equal or better of any of the wealthy and powerful men surrounding her. Never falling into the whore-with-the-heart-of-gold cliche, she retains her appeal as a consistently confident and refreshingly capable person.
Characterization aside, mention must be made of Chavarría’s depiction of Cuba, which despite the noir-ish nature of the novel never loses its sun-kissed brilliance. Forty years of Castro-bashing may have warped the image of Cuba in the eyes of Americans recall the mystification with which many of us regarded Elian Gonzalez’s father’s desire to return there but Communism changed neither the climate nor the landscape, and it remains a place of unique, temperate beauty, which Chavarría captures wonderfully.
Place Adios Muchachos alongside the work of John D. MacDonald, Carl Hiassen, and a good deal of Elmore Leonard, and it’ll fit right in with those masters of incongruously sunny, quirky capers. I recommend a margarita and a comfortable chair in which to while away a bright afternoon watching Alicia, followed by an evening out to raid tombs with Angelina Jolie all in all a full, satisfying day.