'Ruins: A Novel,' by Achy Obejas


A Novel

Achy Obejas

Akashic Books: 206 pp., $15.95 paper

In 1994, more than 30,000 Cubans fled the poverty-stricken country by any means of water-conveyance imaginable. The goal was simple -- reach the Florida Straits in order to build a new life in the United States. With the fall of the Soviet Empire, citizens of Cuba faced even harder times than before, and it was that economic collapse, coupled with decades of less-than-effective rule by Fidel Castro, that precipitated this mass exodus.

From this historical backdrop, Achy Obejas crafts her compassionate and intriguing, if not always effective, new novel, "Ruins." Obejas uses the plight of a poor shopkeeper, Usnavy, a 54-year-old man blinded by loyalty to his country, to explore ethical choices and questions of identity in a world where the old ways have simply failed.

Usnavy, named by his mother for the sleek ships off the coast of Guantanamo, must contend with a wife exhausted by the everyday struggle to find food, a daughter filled with dreams of the North, male friends who ridicule his slavish devotion to the State, and a palpable sense of his numerous shortcomings. Obejas plays out these conflicts in measured, simple prose, allowing her descriptions of the mundane -- houses, food, dominoes -- to illuminate a setting filled with heartbreak, confusion and decay.

When Usnavy discovers a small lamp (possibly a Tiffany) in a collapsed building, though, his beliefs get challenged -- should he table his strict ethics and sell the lamp on the black market to earn much-needed dollars for the well-being and material desires of his family, or should he continue making pennies at his job at a bodega and maintain what he views as integrity to the larger cause of Cuba?

Obejas cultivates a tremendous amount of sympathy for Usnavy's plight, and she never swerves into the often-heated polemics that surround nearly any discussion of the country's politics. Instead, she paints Usnavy as ineffectual but authentic, a man confused and dismayed by not only what he sees in others -- scams, ideological impurity and dreams of escape -- but also what he sees around him: poverty so numbing that his own daughter eats a soup in which chopped-up blankets stand in for meat.

At her best, Obejas controls the mixture of humor and pathos that suffuse this poor community. Some of the nicer scenes come as her protagonist receives endless cracks from his friends as they play dominoes. The men routinely (and fittingly) call Usnavy salao, which means unlucky. In quieter moments, Usnavy frets about his choices and his roots, "This is what he knew: His father had disappeared into the sea. He had vanished, over the rolling blue hills, into the horizon."

Although Obejas' controlling motif of light plays out in interesting ways, it tends to buckle under the weight of another lamp, a giant, beautiful hanging light fixture, a family heirloom, that pulls on the crumbling ceiling of Usnavy's tiny apartment. This lamp is Usnavy's pride, and represents to him the zenith of Cuban beauty and accomplishment. Clearly, the cracks and bubbles on the worn light mirror the country's contemporary crumbling.

The metaphorical connections between Usnavy and Santiago in Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" are made almost too apparent, especially as Obejas has Usnavy read the novel. Many of Obejas' symbols -- blisters, lost identity cards, buildings that fall on themselves, an inability to drive -- get delivered without subtlety, and this shortcoming, along with a story that too often meanders aimlessly and events thrown in the mix but quickly forgotten or ignored, has a frustrating effect on the novel.

In "Ruins," Obejas has given us a modern tale of one man's struggles to do right and do well, and on that level it's successful. However, one can't help but wonder whether a bit more lyricism and a bit fewer plot points and leaden symbols wouldn't have made that tale much more satisfying.

Luce lives in Kansas City, Mo., where he teaches at the Barstow School and the University of Kansas.

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