Let‘s get the excerpt out of the way first, and you tell me what classic novel is evoked in the opening paragraphs of Colin Harrison‘s (“Afterburn“) latest novel, “The Havana Room.“
“Begin on the night that my old life ended. Begin on a warm April evening with a rumpled thirty-nine-year-old man stepping out of his cab at Park Avenue and Seventy-seventh. Manhattan steams and rumbles around him. He needs food, he wants sex, he must have sleep, and he‘d prefer them in that order. The cab speeds off. The time is 1 a.m., and he looks up at his apartment building with a heavy, encyclopedic exhalation, which in its lung depth and audible huh can be found his whole life -- wish and dream, sadness and joy, victory and loss. Yes, his whole life swirls in that one wet breath -- as it does in everyone‘s.
The idea was for him to get home in time for his son‘s birthday party, as a surprise. Even his wife isn‘t expecting him. But his plane was delayed leaving San Francisco, circled LaGuardia endlessly, and then the traffic into the city was slow, even at that hour, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway full of bumping badboys in smoked-glass SUVs, off-peak tractor-trailers, limos from hell. Now, planted on the pavement with his suitcase, our man loosens his red silk tie and top shirt button. He‘s tired of such constriction, though addicted to its rewards. And has he not been rewarded? Why, yes, of course -- bonuses and dividends and compound interest and three-for-one splits. And does he not expect many more such rewards -- semiannual wifely (expletive), prompt service at the dry cleaner‘s, his secretary‘s unhesitating agreement to do whatever he asks? Yes, how could he not? He‘s worked for all these things.
He‘s a successful lawyer, our lawyer. My lawyer. My own lost self. He‘s been with his firm for fourteen years, made partner long ago. His client list includes a major major bank (run by dragons in suits, minority-owned by the House of Saud, accountable to no one), several real estate developers ((expletive)-munching madmen), a television network (puppets dangled by puppets), and various high-net-worth individuals (inheritors, connivers, marriage-flippers). He can handle these people. 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 should be a little flashier, but probably couldn‘t quite 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 this 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.“
I‘m quite sure you all said “Bonfire of the Vanities,“ and if so, you are right and earn an Express Book Shelf Gold Star. Critics and readers alike are hailing “The Havana Room“ as a post-9/11 heir apparent to Tom Wolfe‘s classic ‘80s period piece, and that heady comparison is not made without good reason. After all, in those few paragraphs alone, we have a Manhattan setting, a potential deadly accident being set up, a description of a well-off, if not somewhat morally ambiguous attorney and a tone of sly, dark wit. And that‘s just for starters. Like “Bonfire,“ “The Havana Room“ is one wildly entertaining joy ride, packed with memorable characters and situations that create tension and empathy, revealing the good, bad, ugly, beautiful, sexy, scandalous, money-driven world of upscale New York City.
The protagonist here is Bill Wyeth, a successful lawyer with a Park Avenue address, a healthy income and a postcard-perfect family. As we learn in the excerpt, he is on the brink of a terrible accident, one that shatters his world and costs him everything - everything - he has, just like “Bonfire‘s“ Sherman McCoy.
What Wyeth inadvertently does is to arrive home unexpectedly and inadvertently give his son‘s sleepy guest a glass of milk that contains peanut sauce. Being severely allergic to peanuts, the boy goes into shock and dies, and his powerful, rich, grief-stricken father goes after Wyeth with a vengeance, not resting until his job, family, home and lifestyle have all been taken from him.
As he attempts to rebuild his life, he settles into a ramshackle apartment in the Garment District and becomes a regular at a nearby old-style steakhouse. Wyeth, who is without a job but still donning his designer suits on a daily basis, becomes intrigued with Allison, the sensuous manager of the restaurant. He becomes equally consumed with learning about what goes on in the Havana Room, which is located behind a secretive door in the eatery. Allison finally offers Wyeth a chance to slip inside, but only if he‘ll provide legal assistance to a friend, Jay Rainey, who is trying to close a suspicious real estate deal by midnight.
It‘s a set-up ripe with possibilities and Harrison doesn‘t disappoint. The plot doesn‘t have all of the sharpness of “Bonfire,“ but there are plenty of unexpected twists and great noir dialogue to describe everything from real estate law to Chinese food. Surrealness, political incorrectness and pop culture all co-exist quite nicely here, and the plight of pampered Wyeth as he digs a deeper hole for himself while attempting to climb out of the one he has created renders a fair amount of emotion from the reader.
Ultimately, Harrison, like Wolfe, delivers a modern morality tale that has its share of cautionary warnings about the value we put on success and status at the cost of our basic humanity. This is certainly Harrison‘s best work to date, if not the first great book of the new year.