"The Havana Room" by Colin Harrison

In this dazzling thriller, a staid, married lawyer falls through the cracks of contemporary Manhattan -- and finds a hero out of American lit in a mysterious steakhouse.


Salon Staff
February 6, 2004 2:00AM (UTC)

By unlucky Page 13 of Colin Harrison's new Manhattan thriller, "The Havana Room," the protagonist -- a corporate lawyer named Bill Wyeth who is pushing 40 and pulling down a mid-six-figure (maybe a high-mid-six-figure) income -- has killed a small boy, the son of a man older, richer and more important than he is. Sure, it's an accident, an unlikely midnight mishap, an unpredictable consequence of a bleary evening spent eating takeout Thai food and watching softcore porn. If Bill did anything wrong at all, it was merely that he didn't pay attention to every tiny detail.

But sweating the details, of course, is what got an essentially unremarkable guy like Bill on the path he's on: He has a wife with breasts so good he calls them "the franchise," a son he loves desperately (a schoolmate of the dead boy) and a career track that is likely to conclude with "golf and a boat and the urologist" along with, conceivably, the 15-room summer place on Nantucket his wife, Judith, lusts after. As Bill himself says, he's the kind of guy who is "very similar to a sofa or a minivan." His masculinity is conventional, his appetites are under control. Nothing much has happened to him beyond "dents and unidentified stains."

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Given the kind of book this is, all that is obviously about to change. Since departing his editorial post at Harper's Magazine a few years ago, Harrison (who is married to the memoirist Kathryn Harrison) has pursued a somewhat unlikely career path of his own. He has now written four stylish and sharply etched New York noir novels, and seems to be establishing himself as the Raymond Chandler of contemporary moneyed Manhattan. Whether that's a necessary or valuable niche to fill, of course, is a matter of debate. There is something cold, sour and pornographic in Harrison's lovingly detailed portraits of upper-edge Gothamites, and he's such a fine writer I sometimes wish he weren't expending his talents on the kind of literature most readers experience as disposable entertainment.

But maybe that's just snobbery. "The Havana Room" is compulsively, addictively readable, and it's clearly the most ambitious of Harrison's novels to date. It makes you wonder whether he's studiously working his way toward something as memorable as "Farewell, My Lovely" or "The Big Sleep." In his story of Bill Wyeth's almost limitless fall -- he loses his job, his marriage, his Park Avenue apartment and, more to the point, his self-respect and his sense of his place in the world -- and his gradual redemption, by way of a mysterious old-school steakhouse in the West 30s, Harrison liberally poaches elements from perhaps the best-known and best-loved of American literary novels. Let's just observe that the plot of "The Havana Room" involves a self-made rich man named Jay, of humble origins, who owns property on the North Shore of Long Island and is chasing the ghost of an old flame.

This charismatic, larger-than-life figure is Jay Rainey, who drafts Bill to represent him in a shady real estate transaction concluded after-hours in the Havana Room. This is a dingy below-stairs cigar lounge in the steakhouse where Bill goes every day to quench his misery with beef and alcohol (and, not so incidentally, to flirt with Allison, the restaurant's independent-minded and openly avaricious manager). Bill likes Jay and likes Allison, and doesn't mind the fact that the three of them are starting to look like a romantic triangle as much, perhaps, as he should. There is a very fine, very slight homoerotic undertone to Bill's fascination with Jay -- one Bill himself is not aware of -- and Harrison handles the deepening complexity of this ménage à trois with delicacy.

With his old life in ruins, Bill is reduced to the level of disillusioned observer (like so many leading characters in thrillers and detective novels), but Jay and Allison make him capable of wanting something again. Mostly he wants to know why Jay is so obsessed with a particular building in lower Manhattan that he virtually gives away his piece of grotesquely valuable Long Island beachfront for it. And what happens on those evenings when Allison invites a few men at a time down to the Havana Room, the kind of especially rich, especially powerful and especially hungry New York men whose eyes are "dilated with the conviction that Manhattan was an existentially transactional machine -- one person's fate went in and another's came out."

You'll want to know too. If the unpacking of the various mysteries in "The Havana Room" is, perhaps inevitably, less interesting than Harrison's mesmerizing setup, you'll still devour it all the way, howling at Bill as he wanders into illegal and morally dubious activities, wondering the whole time whether he can be saved (or even deserves to be). Harrison's grand, tantalizing literary ambitions may distract him from making "The Havana Room" an entirely successful thriller, but they also let us know that, like the big-hearted and doomed Jay Rainey (and that other doomed Jay in that other novel) he has his eyes on a bigger prize.

-- Andrew O'Hehir

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