Monday, July 11, 2011

People Who Buy and Sell People


Due to circumstances beyond my control, I am unable to present a new book review this week. Until next week, enjoy this 2009 classic from my newspaper days.

Telex from Cuba: A NovelRachel Kushner’s Telex from Cuba offers a whirlwind tour of pre-Castro Cuba. Her insights into U.S. dollar imperialism are educational and reveal how people treat humans as commodities to be expended. A mass ensemble occupies United Fruit’s empire in verdant Oriente Province like American pharaohs. They buy presidents, sell workers, and insulate themselves from consequences.

K.C. Stites was born in Oriente. A true company son, his youthful eye sees Cuba’s whites grow squalid, even as he enjoys his life of Yanquí privilege. Everly Lederer moved to Oriente as a girl. She shifts from Treasure Island fantasies to an unruly youth, running wild with the boys and romancing a Haitian servant. In Havana, a French gunrunner falls for an enigmatic dancer. He loses himself in her radical ideals even as she becomes Cuba’s own Mata Hari.

The story runs from 1952 to the revolution of 1958. It draws historic figures like Castro, Batista, Christian de la Mazière, and Earl Smith into a vast portrait of United Fruit’s decadent decline. She lets them present themselves, the bad with the good, in all their waning glory. Not every plot thread is treated equally. Some are soap operatic, feeling quick and crude.

Those few readers who still revere la revolución may not appreciate Kushner’s frank handling of the Castro brothers. She hangs some pretty blunt terms on them. But overall, Kushner draws an interesting image of decay in a world that will never exist again.

PropertyValerie Martin’s parable of human commerce is more explicit in Property. She shows that owning people makes owners into small, filthy wrecks of humanity.

Manon Gaudet marries for money, and gets Sarah as her house slave in the bargain. Then her odious husband makes Sarah his mistress. To amplify the insult, Manon cannot give her nameless husband children. Sarah has the only son in their house.

As Manon survives epidemics, slave revolts, and her vulgar husband, her world narrows to focus wholly on Sarah. An umbilical of hatred links the women. When violence leaves Manon widowed and alone, her only joy comes in tormenting Sarah. She becomes poisonous, spewing self-hatred outward onto her slave. Property is an ironic tragedy. The more wronged Manon thinks herself, the more abusive she becomes.

Manon survives lies, humiliation, and violence, to emerge a smaller person. Everything she touches turns to ash, as she blames anyone but herself. This book is a necessary antidote to the romanticism of Gone with the Wind. It reveals the antebellum South as no showcase of posh gentility. But its pious tone implies the author thinks she is writing another Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Martin takes a stand against a life that hasn’t existed for nearly 150 years. Why?

In fairness, Manon is more nuanced and realistic than Simon Legree. And Sarah’s willfulness is a good counterpoint. They are intriguing characters in a perversely attractive story. But it says nothing readers don’t already know. It’s just a new angle on an old story.

GladiatrixKushner and Martin tell languid literary tales of human trafficking. Russell Whitfield aims for adventure in Gladiatrix.

Lysandra is a Spartan warrior priestess until chance makes her an arena slave. The daily struggle to survive gains new implications on the bloody sands of the Roman sports ground. A gladiatrix is a mix of athlete, warrior, and porn star. Lysandra’s fierce, sexually charged tale transforms her from a green recruit into the Danica Patrick of ancient Anatolia.

Whitfield’s First-century Roman setting is a field where history doesn’t know much. This gives him room to build his narrative so that it doesn’t seem like a museum display. This novel lavishes readers with violence and sex. Wall-to-wall arena brawls are the order of the day, with excruciatingly detailed injuries and deaths.

The sex is pretty explicit. Forbidden to sleep with men, Lysandra has a tempestuous affair with a fellow gladiatrix, with every step of their lovemaking spelled out on the page. A lesbian once told me there are two kinds of lesbian porn: porn for lesbians, and porn featuring “lesbians” for straight men. Lysandra’s liaison is the latter.

High art this ain’t. In places, despite clever historic reconstructions, it's downright dumb. But it's also gobs of fun. At root, this is a boys’ action-adventure story. The twist is, the action-adventurers are women. Whitfield keeps it from feeling like a mere twist, though. For all its genre predictability, this book is a rousing romp through historic sports.

Gladiatrix is speedy, cinematic, and multi-dimensional. Nobody will mistake it for great literature, but it’s full of slick, audacious storybook fun.

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