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Mon February 23, 2004
Havana World Series
A new book by Nicki's favorite Cuban author.
By Nicki Leone
Wilmington NC – [Click the LISTEN button to hear Nicki's commentary.]
In first week of fall in 1958 the main thing on everyone?s mind was whether or not the Milwaukee Braves would be able to beat the New York Yankees for a second year in a row at the World Series. It was a clash of the titans-The Braves determined to hold on to their title and the Yankees equally determined to reclaim it. The Braves had Lew Burdett, Del Crandall and Hank Aaron. The Yankees had pitcher Bob Turley, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle. Down 3-1, the Yankees battled back to a 3-3 tie, and when game 7 began, the world stopped what it was doing to listen.
In Havana, the playground of Cuba, a different but equally riveting battle is being fought in Jose LaTour?s latest novel, Havana World Series. Meyer Lansky is raking in the dough with his hotels and casinos. The Battista regime in Cuba has been good for business- it has made the city a haven for the rich and decadent. But the Bonanno family syndicate in New York wants a piece of the pie, and Lanksy isn?t letting them in. So they send Mariano ?The Ox? Contreras into Cuba to organize a heist that will bring Lansky to his knees. Contreras is supposed to clean out Lansky?s casino the day the winner of the World Series is decided?and he has assembled a team of some of the best in the business to pull off the job of jobs. Intrepid and ingenious ex-cons, swindlers, and a few men with more than a few axes to grind, the Contreras team is the odds-on favorite. But Meyer Lansky didn?t become the boss of the Cuban crime syndicate by sitting on the bench, and his own team?including the savvy Nick Di Constanzo and the frightening Jacob Sheifer?aren?t exactly pinch hitters either.
Havana World Series is both a vivid portrayal of a piece of Cuban history and an unflinching anatomy of a casino heist. LaTour is an author wildly famous in his own country although he is only slowly becoming known here. He has a gift for setting a scene in a few swift, spare strokes that seem to magically capture not only the exotic milieu of his home isle, but also a fatalism that is more suited to classic noir novels and films.
The success of movies like The Italian Job and Ocean?s Eleven have made heist stories somewhat fashionable. But this book is no fairytale about a likeable bunch of guys stealing money from some jerk who doesn?t deserve it without anyone getting hurt. NO one is getting into a sporty little mini-cooper stuffed to the gills with gold bars and driving off into the sunset. Contreras isn?t just a criminal mastermind, he?s a killer who works for killers. He?s after another killer?s money. In this heist story, people get dead, and happily ever after means you wake up alive the next morning.
It is a complex plot- the careful back-and-forth parrying between the Lansky team and the Contreras team loosely mirrors the struggle being played out on the baseball diamond. There is also a fairly large cast--sporting names like ?The Wheel? and Willie the Pi which doesn?t always help the reader keep track of who is who. But neither Lansky nor Contreras are really holding all the cards. While Contreras fights to take down the Lansky empire, and Lansky fights to take down Contreras, an entirely different war is being waged across the island, and it isn?t long before the cry of revolucion! is heard even in the streets of Havana.
When Contreras and his team step up the schedule and pull off the heist hours earlier than anyone (even his own guys) was expecting, it looks like the Lanksy team might be down 3-1. But as you know doubt know, it ain?t over ?til the fat lady sings, and it was the Yankees who won the World Series that year.
Nicki Leone is the manager of an independent bookstore in Wilmington.