BOOK REVIEW: The Cuban Club by Barry Gifford

Pushing back on the perceived notions of 1950’s America – the good old days, the easy life, prosperity and opportunity in a post-war boom USA – Barry Gifford’s The Cuban Club is a coming-of-age collection void of rose-tinted glasses. Here, life occurs, real life – the losses, the love, pain, violence, death, sex, childhood and puberty – not the stuff of fantasy. The protagonist is Roy, and it is through his memory that we delve not only into his world, but into a specific shifting generation of American as well. However, this is not his first outing.

Gifford has explored the character for well over thirty years – his ‘Roy stories’ included in the novels Wyoming and Memories from a Sinking Ship as well as his collection The Roy Stories [aptly named]. For a character so well known to the writer, you’d think he’d be exhausted of any fresh ideas. But if the sixty-seven tales within The Cuban Club is anything to go by [which it is], then he’s still just as enamoured with Roy as he ever was. As he states in his author’s note –

‘I had no intention of writing more about Roy [but] he and his family and friends persisted […] they’re still talking and I’m still listening.’

A unique thing, to read a mass of stories centred predominantly on a sole character.

Lending itself to be read sporadically, The Cuban Club is a dovetail of a collection – stories that are linked, but never so tightly ordered. You could begin at the start, the middle, towards the end, the structure is never set. This is no bad thing. The way Gifford writes his world is so accessible you feel as though you know Roy from the get-go. But then again when a writer knows his character so well, maybe this should be a given.

The insight that we are gifted into America through Roy is a joy. 50’s life in Chicago, The Dominican Republic, Florida, on and on, gangsters, marriages, the mob, day-day stuff, it’s all there. By seeing life through Roy’s eyes, we too are gifted the opportunity to explore, with eagerness, the questions and fascinations he has with the world around him. ‘Chicago, Illinois, 1953’ is a prime example. A short tale [as they all are] which immerses the reader [and Roy] into mistaken identity, and mistaken race. The ending is sobering, and a reminder for us in the not too distant future that Gifford’s stories are very much based in a reachable reality.

In a collection boasting so many pieces it’s hard to give a full reflection of Gifford’s work [without harping on for another 1000 or so words] but there are a few pieces to be placed in the spotlight. They capture the mood of The Cuban Club in perhaps the best form – at once funny, at once poignant, at once violent, at once innocent, ever-changing as Roy ages back and forth throughout.

‘The Boy Whose Mother May Have Married A Leopard’ is Gifford presenting the dynamics between Roy and his ex-model mother Kitty [and her friend Kay]. Not a show-stopping tale, nor does it need to be, the writing is concise, the dialogue witty. Gifford mirrors this in a similar sort of tale, ‘The Religious Experience’. Again, we have Kitty, Roy’s mother, alongside recurrent friend Kay. Here Kitty recalls a unique religious epiphany after flying over Christ the Redeemer in Rio with her then boyfriend Antonio [see religious experience being – ‘when I had an orgasm the image of Jesus on the mountaintop was in my mind’]. It’s typical Gifford, the ending even more so.

The frequenting of characters and themes keeps the collection close. His relationship with his mother is sweet and at times fractured, mainly due to her tendency to marry men he doesn’t like, and the snapshots of their moments together are ultimately one of my favourite elements of the collection. ‘Men in The Kitchen’ being another story of such affectation.

But there is more – another side to Roy’s life via his father and the seedy goings-on in Chicago and occasionally Las Vegas in the 50’s. Via his own innocence too. Where there is light there is darkness. ‘Sick’ is a prime example. Another story where Roy is joined by a recurring character, this time his friend Johnny Murphy. The boys go in search of clues to solve the recent murder of a young woman. Child’s play this is not. Roy asks Johnny if he thinks the girl has been raped, to which Johnny replies –

‘if she was, it probably didn’t happen on the beach in bad weather […] so if the killer molested her, he did it somewhere else before he dumped the body here’.

Gifford is unflinching in his delivery, and all the better for it.

The violence – or indeed the life of crime, extends itself into his relationship with his father; mid-level mob racketeer by the name of Rudy. At once a moral and protective guide to Roy, at once a morally corrupt guide too, their relationship is explored with a careful hand. In ‘River Woods’ Roy and his father take a trip to see Mr. Mosca, a business affiliate of Rudy’s, whilst in ‘When Benny Lost His Meaning’ Roy learns just exactly how Benny lost his meaning whilst spending time with his father in his liquor store, picking up all sorts from the men and women who drop in and out of Rudy’s life – the showgirls, the grifters, and so on.

It’s no spoiler to say that within the collection Roy’s father passes away, but Gifford gives the reader a chance to learn of the man through the eyes of others. In ‘Incurable’ Roy’s Uncle Buck notes, almost two years after Rudy’s death, that…

‘your father was a very generous man. He’d give you the shirt off his back, if he liked you. But in business he was tough.’

These impressions give further depth to The Cuban Club which, without it, could feel almost hollow – a sketch of a person’s life rather than coloured with detail. Gifford avoids being heavy handed too, never fully over explaining the characteristics of the people he has created, Kitty and the like.

An enjoyable read, for many reasons, The Cuban Club is a collection of tales – adventures and snapshots, offered rarely with any concrete conclusions or judgement. Roy is a fascinating character, and so too is his life, allowing the reader to look inward on themselves as well, and offer their own answers to the questions Roy [and other characters] pose throughout.

The Cuban Club is published by Seven Stories Press and is available here.

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Barry Gifford

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The author of more than forty works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, which have been translated into over twenty-five languages, Barry Gifford writes distinctly American stories for readers around the globe. From screenplays and librettos to his acclaimed Sailor and Lula novels, Gifford’s writing is as distinctive as it is difficult to classify. Born in the Seneca Hotel on Chicago’s Near North Side, he relocated in his adolescence to New Orleans. The move proved significant: throughout his career, Gifford’s fiction—part-noir, part-picaresque, always entertaining—is born of the clash between what he has referred to as his “Northern Side” and “Southern Side.” Gifford has been recipient of awards from PEN, the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Library Association, the Writers Guild of America, and the Christopher Isherwood Foundation. His novel Wild at Heart was adapted into the 1990 Palme d’Or-winning film of the same name. Gifford lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Reviewed by Emily Harrison

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