Elmore Leonard's "Cuba Libre" has come along just as "Jackie Brown" -- Quentin Tarantino's film version of his earlier novel, "Rum Punch" -- is fading at your local multiplex. In this age of continuous marketing, you expect a well-planned connection between the two events, perhaps an extension of Jackie's story from the writer whose luckless characters seem to be the only people in America who consider mixology a hard science. The fact that this assumption is wrong is both good and bad news for Leonard fans.
Surely the good news is that Leonard is covering new ground, reaching back 100 years to the exceedingly brief Spanish-American War. Perhaps "new" is a misleading word here. Back before he tracked the down-and-out who shuttle along the trail between Miami and Detroit, Leonard started out as a writer of westerns. And you might easily see the Spanish-American War as a sort of range war, a western with palm fronds. Leonard certainly seems to. He's stocked his story with people who'd be just as comfortable in Yuma as old Havana.
Ben Tyler, mustang wrangler, has seen more of Yuma, in fact, than he'd ever cared to, having just finished doing several years in the state prison there for collecting money owed to him by wealthy mine owners in an innovative manner -- by "withdrawing" it from their local bank accounts at the point of a gun. Tyler is lured into a horse trading/gun running expedition by a smooth-talking friend who needs that hardest-to-find employee, the kind with basic integrity but an outlaw past -- "If I'm gonna break the law I ought to have a partner know's what it's like ... somebody that's et the cake."
That Ben's et a little more than he expected becomes apparent even as his gun-laden cattle boat sails into Havana's harbor, past the "pile of scrap" that just three days before was the U.S. battleship Maine. Waiting for him in Havana are a collection of nasty Spanish soldiers and local constables, shadowy revolutionaries and an unscrupulous -- of course -- American plantation owner with a feisty mistress, Amelia Brown, who takes an immediate liking to the displaced cowboy. As war breaks out, Ben and Amelia face the complicated task of liberating themselves and making off with a standard Leonard prop -- a small parcel of thickly wadded bank notes.
No one would hold it against Leonard for wanting to stretch his talent from time to time; but "Cuba Libre" only feels like it's coming alive at those moments when it most resembles Leonard's modern-day fiction. When he's laying on the history -- almost always through the mouths of American newspaper correspondents -- Leonard's usually brisk pacing flounders and feels as dead in the water as the Maine. It takes a novel like this to drive home the realization of how much truth Leonard can reveal -- and how much fun he can have -- when he's anchored in the wonderful, desperate present.