Christopher Hunt opens "Waiting for Fidel" with a preposterous conceit: that he, a naive American writer, new in town, with no previous history in Cuba, might be granted a meeting with el jefe himself, Fidel Castro. Why, you wonder, would this audacious presumption be either possible or -- from Castro's point of view -- a remotely desirable way to pass the time? Hunt is off to a wobbly start. His premise leaves a bad taste, as if Cuba were such a puny entity and so craving of American attentions that even an insinuating young gringo might gain an audience. El Comandante -- surprise! -- is busy, so Hunt sets off to do the next best thing: retrace the steps of Castro's ragtag band of barbudos as they conducted their victorious march on Havana in 1959.
"Having tried and failed to find him [Castro] in Havana," Hunt writes, "I ... substituted a metaphoric meeting. Following his footsteps from Las Coloradas, where he landed, to the Sierra Maestra, where he plotted the war against Batista, seemed a sensible way to get a sense of the man and his motives. Traveling from Santiago de Cuba to Havana would help me understand the movement that defined the man."
It takes about 50 pages, but once Hunt sheds his faux naiveti, and sets off for the countryside, his narrative reclaims some credibility. Traveling along Cuba's improvised mass transit system -- which involves clambering in the back of passing trucks for nerve-rattling, open-air journeys between the stations of Castro's crusade -- he allows the characters he meets along the way to tell his story. He renders them well, from the elderly villagers who witnessed the passing of Castro's growing army to the young entrepreneurs who have given up revolutionarily correct careers for the thriving black market. En route, he softens to many of Cuba's numerous seductions -- of the female, rum-fueled sort -- and to the defiant, sensual and generous spirit of its people. It is the people he encounters who force Hunt to take Cuba seriously -- even as they greet the news of his professed purpose for being there with well-deserved and derisive laughter.
Particularly effective are the complex and contradictory feelings they express for Castro -- referred to generally with a soundless gesture around the chin, suggesting a beard -- a mixture of respect and allegiance tempered with exasperation and anger over rapidly deteriorating living conditions. When Hunt lets people speak, his portrait of their lives (particularly those left out of Cuba's tourist-fueled parallel dollar economy) does accumulate into a picture of Cuban life outside the well-trodden pathways of Havana.
But Hunt's knowledge of Cuban history seems to have been limited to tourist brochures and guide-book synopses, and in the end one is left with little more than a string of colorful anecdotes. And it's hard to shake the sense that Hunt's travels were undertaken because, after his straw man left him blowing in the wind, he had nothing better to do.