In 1993, two years after the Soviet bloc collapsed and $4 billion in aid vanished from the Cuban economy, Fidel Castro turned up in a photograph audaciously autographing American dollars for tourists. It's a potent image, but one that is also utterly misleading. Even though Castro has opened up his country's markets to American capital, state wages have stagnated, throwing much of Cuba's population into corrosive poverty. Meanwhile, the American dollar has become a talisman of prestige in Cuba--the grail of a widespread underground and tourist economy. In his full-throated fiction debut Dirty Havana Trilogy (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Pedro Juan Gutiérrez evokes the consequences of this economic collapse: "Since there's nothing (or rather, there is, in fact, everything in the dollar stores, available at Tokyo prices) you sell pens, lighters, envelopes, any little thing you can pick up, and you're set. To hell with schedules, bosses and power trips....You've got to take advantage of the crisis: make the best of things."
Gutiérrez's semiautobiographical novel, originally published in Spain and then banned from Cuba, is one of the most acclaimed and controversial books to emerge from behind Castro's curtain. Descended from the writing of Henry Miller, it relates the raunchy, unglamorous story of a man named Pedro Juan, a journalist who is fed up with prettifying life in Cuba for the benefit of its dictator. In turn, he quits his job and plunges into the melee of Havana's underground. Starved and sex-crazed, he will do anything for money: He sells cans, unclogs gas pipes, and ferries goods for smugglers.
When not peddling for American greenbacks, Pedro Juan cruises for sex. When we first meet him, he is having a casual tumble with his friend and lover on the sly, Margarita. Here Gutiérrez gives us the first of the book's many garish sex scenes: "I couldn't resist the temptation, and after playing with her for a little while, after she had already come three times, I eased myself into her ass, very slowly, greasing myself with cunt juice."
And so it goes, over and over, ad nauseam. As Pedro canvasses Havana's steamy barrios, he observes an improbable number of copulating Cubans. Dirt-poor and angry at how Castro adds to their misery, they flaunt their ability to have sex in streets, doorways, on rooftop balconies. Throughout Dirty Havana Trilogy, Pedro gorges in this orgy, taking from women what he feels is rightfully his to enjoy. In one chapter, he relates a tactic for inspiring lust in a lesbian. "Since she was alone, I pulled it out and showed it to her. I thought it would turn her on. I have a beautiful prick, broad, dark, six inches long, with a pink throbbing head and lots of black hair. The truth is, I like my own prick....It's a sinewy, luscious, hard prick."
Pedro continually begs, cajoles, and fights for sex. He has twosomes, threesomes, foursomes; he even masturbates at the sight of women on the street. Like William T. Vollmann and Charles Bukowski, Gutiérrez portrays this vulgar sexuality unsentimentally. Although Havana pulsates with libido and passion, Pedro's narration depicts an erotic universe ravaged by its emotional and spiritual indigence. One hardly believes him when he says, a little ironically, "I was sated with sex. With Luisa, I came two or three times a day, which is very good for the soul. Discharging semen as you produce it, you keep the storerooms open and lots of things just fall into place."
Throughout this unflinching, and often tedious, novel, things rarely, if ever, fall into place for Pedro. Indeed, what's crushing about Dirty Havana Trilogy is that, like Genet's deliciously depraved antiheroes, Pedro is keenly aware of how low he has sunk. Despite his many orgasms, the shots of rum he swallows, each morning he awakes in the same sweltering, dark city, a place as melancholic as his soul. As if to drive home his loneliness, the novel offers us almost no other recurring characters--there's no one else's voice or experience to provide a rational second opinion. Revealing decrepitude is Pedro's artistic raison d'être. "Don't you hold your nose when you pass the garbage truck?" he asks. "Don't you hide your trash cans out back? That's why no one smiles at me either and why they look the other way when they see me. I'm a shitraker....
only an angry, obscene, violent, offensive art can show us the other side of the world, the side we never see or try not to see so as to avoid troubling our conscience."
Constructed from hundreds of two- and three-page vignettes, and organized into three parts--"Marooned in No Man's Land," "Nothing to Do," and "Essence of Me"--Dirty Havana Trilogy wallows decadently in its muck, resisting the reader's need for some hopeful message. Like a Pollock painting, it swirls and draws one in, suffocating the reader with its busily textured surface. Lacking narrative drive, and so drenched in squalor, the book almost dares you to put it down. Gutiérrez, a former journalist, poet, and painter who still lives in Cuba, ostentatiously flaunts his country's filth, hoping to transmute it into literature. "Truth is best, the hard truth," he writes. "You pick it up on the street, just as it is, you grab it with both hands, and if you're strong enough, you lift it up and let it fall on the blank page."
America's founding myths teach us to believe that things will always get better, that a little hard work and some pluck will be aptly rewarded. Despite its flaws, Dirty Havana Trilogy courageously reflects a world in which these principles are inverted, where thievery is a profession, boom times cannot be remembered, and redemption eludes its characters.