Among the flood of refugees leaving Cuba in the wake of Fidel Castro's 1959 seizure of power were the residents of two U.S. company towns, expats who had been living like aristocrats in the eastern province of Oriente. Brought in to run the U.S.-owned nickel mine and the cane fields of United Fruit Company, the men of Nicaro and Preston overstayed their welcome, as one United Fruit executive realizes when he discovers his workers have set the cane on fire and fled ahead of the harvest. The rest of Rachel Kushner's temperamental historical debut Telex from Cuba doesn't contain enough mood-setting to distract from the towns' ignominious end, as foreshadowed in that cloud.

While native Cubans toil six days a week, the plant supervisors and their wives drink cocktails and complain about the appliances they were promised for their homes, and the native foods their servants cook. K.C., who was born in the United Fruit company hospital, struggles to understand why his family never mixes with the poorer farmers; his older brother will resolve this internal dilemma by running off to fight alongside the Castros in the mountains. Everly, whose father moves the family to Nicaro for a lucrative job offer, becomes obsessed with her father's black Cuban errand boy and covets what she sees as his freedom to pass between worlds. Meanwhile, a French turncoat named La Mazière arrives in Havana hoping to smuggle arms to the revolutionaries like he does for dictators in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, but falls in love with a Polish-Cuban burlesque dancer named Rachel K who has the ear of current president Fulgencio Batista.

Advertisement

Kushner weaves her narrative around an ever-increasing quantity of voices, but this diverse approach turns cacophonous by the time a party scene explores the perspective of virtually every guest, in dizzying detail. Even without that multiplicity of voices, it's impossible to enjoy the depictions of idyllic town life given the insularity of the enclaves and the rapidly approaching turmoil. Clearly the only reason these Americans aren't fiddling while Rome burns is because it's too hot to pick up an instrument, with the children sensing the unrest their parents ignore. Telex From Cuba's assault on their character, while hardly unjustified, is so thorough that only the Havana lovers and profiteers seem sympathetic at the end; at least they can be honest with themselves.