- Hardcover: 400 pages
- Publisher: Farrar Straus & Giroux; 1st edition (Jan. 1 2004)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0374299862
- ISBN-13: 978-0374299866
- Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 3.3 x 22.9 cm
- Shipping Weight: 635 g
- Average Customer Review: 14 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,674,974 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Havana Room Hardcover – Dec 1 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
Harrison's status as the noir poet of New York crime fiction (Afterburn; Manhattan Nocturne) will surely be enhanced by his latest thriller-featuring, among other pleasures, the graphic description of several new and unusual ways to die. What goes on in the by-invitation-only Havana Room of a midtown steakhouse is certainly bizarre-but no odder than what happens in a Long Island potato field when a Chilean wine maker decides to expand his empire. Caught in the middle are two most unlikely heroes: Bill Wyeth, a real estate lawyer whose career and marriage are destroyed by a terrible accident involving a child, and Jay Rainey, a hulking, strangely sympathetic con artist. Linking these two is a touching and complicated woman, Allison Sparks, who manages the steakhouse but longs for more. "She seemed full of humor and fury and sexual need. She arranged people, fixed problems, came to decisions." Although Wyeth and Rainey drive the action, it's Sparks who sets the moral tone of the book. Meanwhile, the lush, alluring steakhouse and its public and private pleasures are the perfect metaphor for a postapocalyptic New York. "It did not matter if you polluted your lungs or liver or gut with the good stuff being served, because a man or a woman's life was itself just a short meal at the table, so to speak, and one had an obligation to live well and live now, to dine heartily by the logic of the flesh." Despite occasional digressions into arcane real estate law and Chinese cuisine, Harrison's storytelling hums and his prose shimmers all the way through this fascinating adventure.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Harrison's latest intelligent thriller does not offer quite as compelling a plot as his last one, the acclaimed Afterburn (1999); however, his businessman-turned-desperado characters are never less than riveting, bringing us an up-to-date bulletin straight from the heart of a battered New York City. Corporate lawyer Bill Wyeth is jettisoned from his pampered upper-middle-class lifestyle by a tragic accident. Arriving home unexpectedly, he gives his son's sleepy guest a glass of milk inadvertently laced with peanut sauce. The boy, severely allergic, goes into shock and dies. The boy's wealthy, grieving father engineers Bill's destruction, and he loses his job, home, and family. Desperate for some kind of structure, Bill becomes a regular at a long-established steakhouse, entering the orbit of beautiful and austere restaurant manager Allison Sparks. She gives him entree to the Havana Room, the scene of backroom deals and strange goings-on, and introduces him to Jay Rainey, a hugely charismatic and secretive businessman who draws Bill into a dangerous venture. Suddenly, both men are being stalked by hip-hop-loving thugs and a cultured but equally ruthless entrepreneur. The complex plot, however, merely seems like the framework for Harrison's ultra-modern morality tale about the costs of self-preservation and the deep pressures of being human. Joanne Wilkinson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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When he has reached the bottom, he wanders into a steak restaurant that seems to be an island of sanity in a world that has turned on him. He develops a crush on the woman who runs the restaurant, Allison Sparks. There is a mysterious room which is invitation-only that fascinates him but to which he cannot gain access. Then one night he is asked by Allison to help her boyfriend, Jay Rainey, close a real estate deal. He does, reluctantly, and as a result, (1) finds himself doing things that, while not clearly criminal, could be and (2) starts being threatened by a series of thugs for reasons he cannot understand. All of this leads him to uncover Jay Rainey's secrets as a way of saving himself.
The obvious influence on this book is the Great Gatsby. Rainey shares a first name (Jay) with Gatsby, an obsession with trying to reclaim the past, and a possibly criminal background. Indeed, Wyeth comes on a list of activities made by Rainey of what to do each day that is almost identical to a list made by Gatsby, although for different purposes. Of course, nothing is what it seems a first or even second glance.
By the end of the book, Harrison is tying up numerous plots, including Rainey's past and future, and the mysterious Havana Room. I found the resolution somewhat forced. Additionally, I often figured out what was happening well before the narrator, which is annoying. The secret of what goes on in the Havana Room was a let-down. And the ending was a little too hopeful for what had gone before.
Nevertheless, this book is not a waste. Harrison is trying to write more than a run of the mill thriller. The use of the Gatsby theme is effective, and the ultimate secrets about Rainey's past are moving. Violence plays a part in the book, but it seemed realistic in that it was not carefully thought out but almost accidental. While the book is not perfectly plotted, it offers the reader interesting characters who, like Gatsby, are pulled back into the past.
The most important lesson that one can learn about life is that every act carries its own potential for disaster, and that while there are ways to cut the odds, the house holds all the cards. This is a lesson that Bill Wyeth learns, at the cost of dear coin, in THE HAVANA ROOM.
Wyeth is a fabulously successful real estate attorney, still on the ascending arc of a brilliant career, when he commits an act of simple, almost offhand, courtesy that results in personal disaster. Within weeks he has lost his job, his family and his respect, while each day tolls his ever-deeper descent into his personal maelstrom.
The unplanned randomness of his life finds him entering a Manhattan steak house --- we never really learn its name --- where he finds himself slowly drawn into the web of Allison Sparks, the restaurant's attractive, enigmatic manager, and the Havana Room, a separate room in the restaurant where entrance is on an invitation-only basis and where what goes on is a closely held secret.
Wyeth and Sparks slowly form a conversational relationship, a relationship that begins a fateful culmination on the day that Sparks asks Wyeth to represent her friend, Jay Rainey, in a real estate transaction that must be concluded by midnight of that day. Wyeth has reservations about the transaction and his role in the matter almost from the beginning. The transaction, which amounts to a land swap involving a Manhattan building for some prime Long Island acreage owned by Rainey, brings Wyeth closer to Sparks at the price of ensnaring him in a mysterious, complex scenario that accelerates his downward spiral.
Wyeth is buffeted by a number of complex forces, among them a powerful Chilean businessman, a frightening hip-hop mogul, a farmer found frozen to a bulldozer and, most significantly, Rainey's obsessions, including his peculiar fixation on a fourteen-year-old British girl. The nexus connecting these seemingly disparate elements is ultimately located in THE HAVANA ROOM, where the denouement has the potential to ultimately result in disaster or redemption.
One of the most fascinating elements of THE HAVANA ROOM is the way in which Harrison keeps the plates containing different plot threads spinning while hypnotizing the reader to the extent that one can still see them rotating long after the book is done, and Harrison has taken his plates and poles, packed them up and gone home. But it is not just the exquisite plotting of the book that makes it such a delight. Harrison says more in a sentence than many writers do in a chapter, and more in a chapter than others do in an entire book. Harrison at one point gives, in a little more than three pages, a summary of the evolution of Manhattan real estate from its inception to the present. Is it complete? No. But after reading it, one could walk along Broadway in Times Square and feel the sense of history upon which the area is built.
At another point, when discussing Sparks, Harrison presents an interesting and bitingly accurate social and emotional commentary regarding the trajectory of the lives of the young, single women who come to work and live in Manhattan. His dissertation is only a few paragraphs long, yet contains more truth than any multiple DVD set chronicling a season of Sex and the City.
Harrison also has a way of making any character, no matter how secondary their role or fleeting their appearance, vibrant and real. This is true whether it involves a street punk on a subway stairway, an ex-cop running a down-at-the-heels diner, or a rap groupie strung out on heroin and the proximity of fortune. Perhaps Harrison's greatest strength, however, is his ability to infuse his characters with a quiet but strong nobility that enable them to make the best of a bad situation. In the end, all is not as it seems --- and if salvation is not at hand, there is at least the promise of it.
THE HAVANA ROOM may well be Harrison's breakthrough novel --- it certainly has that potential. It is a stunning triumph for him and a feast for the reader. Very highly recommended.
--- Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub
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