Picks and Pans Review: Mile Zero

updated 10/16/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/16/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Thomas Sanchez

Sanchez has said that he intended this novel to "unravel my own generation."

As it happens, while he's no more lacking in talent and literary resources than he is in ambition, this seems more like a beautifully written mystery than it does a generation-defining opus.

He marvelously evokes his setting, Key West, portraying it as both the beginning of the United States and its utter end, depending on a character's point of view. As the novel begins, it is 1981. The first space shuttle has just been launched; a boat has just arrived at Key West, filled with Haitian refugees, only one of whom is alive. He has AIDS, and the specter of the disease hovers at the edges of the novel.

The plot centers on an aging black Key West cop of Cuban ancestry, Justo Tamarindo. (If this book ever gets made into a movie and James Earl Jones doesn't get the part, the producer will lose his membership in the Obvious Casting Society.) He becomes involved in a convoluted case involving voodoo, the Santeria religion, drug running, suicide and murder. Also involved is St. Cloud, an ex-Vietnam War protester still baffled by the fact that his wife, Evelyn, left him for another woman. He remembers their early days: "St. Cloud not only thought he understood Evelyn, he thought he knew what they both stood for, what America stood for, and how they didn't fit. That was long ago, before their chance landing on Key West, an island made quirky by a dangerous slant of light angling from the tropics."

Like a master mystery writer, Sanchez fills the periphery with colorful characters: There's a dying artist, Isaac, reminiscing about the women in his life: "No matter how pretty they are, the boredom of a young woman finally catches up with you. You have to train them. Then what do you do with them? It's like training a seal. Endearing at first, but who wants to walk around with a pocketful of sardines for the rest of his life?" There's a barmaid who poses nude for Isaac—so he can remember, not for him to paint or touch—and who also wants Justo to cheat on his wife. There's Lila, a young sexpot to whom St. Cloud transfers his affection. There's Isaac's gay son, scoffing at his father's devout heterosexuality. There's the enigmatic MK, Lila's ex-boyfriend and a Vietnam vet turned gunrunner.

Sanchez's names for these characters—Isaac's son is Renoir, the surviving Haitian is Voltaire, the barmaid is Angelica—suggest symbolism even where none materializes. He also lapses into Spanish at odd moments, as in "He ground the chewy conch meat between his teeth and swallowed it in a lump destined to give him a pain before another malo día was over."

Even as he goes about revealing the identity of Zobop, the voodoo menace, Sanchez succeeds in imparting troubling suggestions about the transitory nature of life in general and American life in particular. This never seems to reach generation-defining proportions, however.

Sanchez describes St. Cloud as "one of those people too clever for the everyday world, but not clever enough for the real world." The author himself fits that description at times. This book is certainly not what might have been expected by those who recall Sanchez's dizzyingly articulate 1973 novel about American Indians, Rabbit Boss, (Since, he has published only The Zootsuit Murders, in 1978.) Best to forget genres. This is a strikingly eloquent book—the mystery disguised as a novel of coming and going. Maybe vice versa. (Knopf, $19.95)

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