Published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
Review by W. R. Greer
What do you do when you lose everything important to you, your job and potentially your career, your family, your friends, and all vestiges of the life you once had? If you're Bill Wyeth, the protagonist in Colin Harrison's The Havana Room, you do what most people would be inclined to do: dwell in the pits of self-pity and despair. Unfortunately for Bill Wyeth, once he begins to return his life to some sense of normalcy, he discovers the world to be a sicker place than he imagined and discovers he has even more to lose than he thought.
At the start of The Havana Room, Bill Wyeth is a partner in a high-powered Manhattan law firm. It provides him a lifestyle where he spends $100,000 on a new kitchen, spends $48,000 a year for his son's baby sitter, and his next big purchase is to be the obligatory "big, shingled summer place on Nantucket." It's a world where their children are coddled and the horrors of the city are hidden from them, and where the children invited for a slumber party are chosen for the potential business contacts of their parents as well as any friendship to their son. The story is narrated by Bill, and as it begins, he's looking back in hindsight at the person he was then:
He's a man of brisk phone calls and efficient business lunches and clean paperwork. Dependable, but not a killer. Or rather, apparently not a killer. Not a screamer or a power-drinker or a deal-popper -- no doors get blown off when he goes by, the secretaries don't look up. In fact, he, he should be a little flashier, but probably couldn't pull it off. His hair is too thin, his waist one Sunday Times too thick. On the third hand, the world runs on dependable, unflashy people like him and he knows it. People feel comfortable with him. The law firm feels comfortable. So he feels only somewhat uncomfortable, only a bit replaceable. He understands that it's going to be a slow climb. Five years long for every big one up. He sees the middle passage looming, the gray hair, the stiffness in the knees, the cholesterol pills. But not yet, quite. Where the climb ends, he isn't sure, but it probably involves golf and a boat and the urologist, and that is acceptable, almost. If there's a streak of fatalism in him, he keeps it under control. He wishes for many things and knows he'll get only a few. He wishes he were taller, richer, slimmer, and had screwed many more girls before getting married. His wife, Judith, who is five years younger, is quite lovely. He wishes, however, that she was just a little nicer to him. She know that she's still quite lovely, for a while at least, until -- as she has announced many times -- she gets her mother's neck. (Will it be a softly bloated horror, or an udder of empty skin? He doesn't know; there's a family history of cosmetic surgery.) Meanwhile, he's been faithful and a good provider and even changed a few diapers when their son was young. Steady -- the same guy year in and year out. Judith, however, believes in the reinventability of all things, especially herself, and has cycled through shiatsu, aromatherapy, yoga, Lord knows what. Wanting something, something else. Seems frustrated, even by her own orgasms. Wants, wants more. Don't he and Judith have quite enough? Of course not. But such desire is dangerous. Thus the constant reinvention. He doesn't understand how that can be done; you are who you are, he believes, and that's it.
It is this "wanting more" that runs through the novel. Even though he's wealthy, he still wants more money and despises the head of the compensation committee at his firm, and he wants more sex from his wife. Those seem like normal desires for any man. It also sets up Bill's downfall. He tries to come home early from a business trip to surprise his wife and son on his birthday. He arrives too late, though, and his son and his friends are asleep in one room and his wife asleep in another. He wants to wake his wife, but decides not to, and sets about seeing to his own needs. He orders Thai food and flips through the television channels, "identifying each show's whack-off potential in perhaps a second before moving on," when one of the boys wakes up and wants a drink. Bill hurriedly gets the boy a cup of milk and back to bed, not realizing that he has gotten peanut oil from the Thai food on the glass, or that the boy has a severe peanut allergy. When the boy is found dead the next morning, life as Bill knows it comes to an end.
Dependable Bill now becomes a liability and a pariah. The boy's powerful father engineers Bill's release from the law firm. Judith takes their son and moves across the country and divorces him. Bill gives her everything she wants and agrees to give up all parental rights to his son. They liquidate all of their assets and most of that goes to Judith too. Bill eventually finds himself in a poor apartment in a bad neighborhood with no job prospects and no willingness to look for any. Far from his pampered life in a secluded world of wealth, Bill gets punched when bumping into someone on the subway. Life has reached rock bottom for him when he finally discovers the Manhattan steakhouse that houses The Havana Room.
Bill begins to visit the steakhouse for lunch almost every day. He even gets a regular table. He's intrigued by the old-style steakhouse with its atmosphere of both antiquity and privilege. It's served politicians and sports heroes with the same steaks cooked to perfection for years, it was rumored to be once owned by Frank Sinatra, and its private rooms upstairs caters to the current celebrities: "reserved for private parties six months in advance, piano for hire, strippers allowed." Not only does his daily visit allow him the anonymity of his new life and a peek into his old life, but it also allows him to watch Allison Sparks, the manager who keeps the steakhouse in prime running condition and sees to all of its customers' needs. The steakhouse also has one mystery that intrigues Bill, a private bar downstairs that was actually once a separate building. It's a room where the door is always locked, opened only at midnight on select occassions and accessible by invitation only. Over time Allison spends more time with Bill, her regular customer at table 17, and tries to ascertain the reasons he comes every day. Bill for his part, enjoys her company and sees her as his only path to find out what goes on in The Havana Room.
Allison finally lets Bill into The Havana Room, but only if he'll agree to act as lawyer for her boyfriend, Jay, who is trying to close a real estate deal. The deal must be done by midnight. Bill reluctantly agrees, even though all his legal experience warns him that things are not right. By doing so, though, he pleases Allison, he gets to be a lawyer again, and he gains entry into The Havana Room. Bill closes the real estate deal, a swap of Long Island farmland for a building in New York City, even negotiating extra cash for Jay. Unsurprisingly, things go wrong almost right away, forcing Bill to miss the secret activity within The Havana Room. Bill finds himself forced into a world he'd rather not inhabit, but one that doesn't totally surprise him. The world of New York real estate is one full of secrets, half-truths, lies, shell companies, untold fortunes made and lost, and egos that drive the need for wanting more. To make it worse for Bill, nothing in this transaction is what it seems. Soon there is the mysterious death of a black man on the Long Island farm, apparently from a heart attack. The buyer of the land sues Jay and Bill to find out what the man was trying to hide, and the man's son, owner of a hip-hop club, threatens Bill with bodily harm if money isn't forthcoming to compensate for his father's death. Jay, however, is elusive and difficult to find, seemingly obsessed with the building he bought and a 14-year girl he's apparently stalking. Everyone seems to recognize Bill as the one who is best suited to get to the bottom of everything, so pressure is brought to bear on him to solve the mysteries. Bill realizes that others will be eventually pulled into the deepening crisis against their will, including Allison and the 14-year old girl. Threats are even made against his wife and son, who are now in Italy. If the police get involved, this could lead to Bill's disbarment and end all hopes of being an attorney again.
Colin Harrison succeeds in many aspects with this novel. Many authors depict the dark underbelly of New York, with its pimps, whores, addicts, violence, and depravity. Colin Harrison creates the same type of atmosphere, but with the wealthy underpinnings of greed and desire. Whether in the smoky environs of The Havana Room, a real estate office on Long Island, or even innocuous events like a piano recital or girls' basketball game, the threats and slowly discovered truths create an air of danger and mystery. New York runs on money, and the greed and ego behind the money moves everything in the city, at least in Bill Wyeth's world. It's this wanting more that creates the risk and the danger. Wealthy men want the beautiful woman, the unique experiences that can only be bought with power and money, and they know the way to feel superior to others is to often make them feel inferior instead. Bill Wyeth is the moral compass at the center of the story. While everyone else appears to have ulterior motives, he's driven by the need to do the right thing and to reclaim some semblance of a normal life. To do so requires him to solve all the mysteries surrounding the real estate deal to everyone's satisfaction, but the underlying answers to the many mysteries may not satisfy all the parties concerned.
The characters in this novel all ring true, although a bit stereotypical at times. Some of the surprises in The Havana Room are those who don't appear to be what they seem on first impression. Some who might be villains become sympathetic, and some who seem sympathetic carry villainy within them. Not only does this add to the mysteries within the book, but it helps to create characters who are more complex and complicated.
Yet, this novel, while still quite an enjoyable read, manages to come up just short of being a top-notch novel. The last couple mysteries are obvious for a while before they become apparent to Bill, and the ending is a little too pat. Bill Wyeth, while a complex man, is a difficult man to completely like. His flaws are genuine and his intentions are good, but a lack of passion within him leaves him a bit debilitated. You root for him, but you wouldn't want to hang out with him. When it comes to Bill Wyeth, well, I found myself wanting more.
Still, The Havana Room manages to capture the soul of a city, although it's not an honorable one. New York is as complex as the characters within The Havana Room and just as full of secrets and desires for more. Perhaps the city is really the central character here, flawed, beautiful, and impossible to understand. Within its scope, Colin Harrison paints a portrait of a man struggling to understand himself and his place within it, and to give up wanting more and appreciate what he has. Enjoy the secrets of The Havana Room.
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