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Nelson DeMille’s ‘The Cuban Affair’ review: LI author introduces new hero in uneven 20th novel

Garden City author Nelson DeMille.

Garden City author Nelson DeMille. Photo Credit: John Ellis Kordes

THE CUBAN AFFAIR, by Nelson DeMille. Simon & Schuster, 433 pp., $28.99.

With “The Cuban Affair,” Long Island’s own Nelson DeMille is back with a new adventure — and a new hero.

DeMille’s 20th novel introduces Daniel Graham “Mac” MacNamara, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and fishing guide settling into a boozy retirement among the colorful misfits of Key West, Florida. When Mac gets hooked into helping some Cuban exiles return to their homeland in search of half-century-old treasure, he finds himself running for his life in “an alternate universe where the past and the present fought to become the future.”

The opening of “The Cuban Affair” is dynamite — crisp, funny and dramatic — and the climactic conclusion is masterful action writing, fast, precise and genuinely gripping. What becomes in between, though, is curiously static. Once Mac has taken up the mission, there is little for him and his sexy counterpart Sara Ortega to do but sleep together, make wisecracks (Mac) and deliver passionate speeches about freedom-loving exiles (Sara) while waiting for the action to start.

Having recently visited Cuba, DeMille is chock-full of local color and history to impart, which he does in bursts that may be factually accurate but are also dramatically inert. Since Mac and Sara are undercover as part of a Yale alumni tour group, they spend a lot of time being led around various picturesque historical sites, which gives the author the chance to flaunt his newfound knowledge. (Sample: “The bus drove through the gates of a huge cemetery, the Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón, a.k.a. Christopher Columbus, which held, said Antonio, over five hundred major mausoleums, chapels, vaults, and galleries, and thousands of tombstones.”) If you’re a fan of your Uncle Al’s post-vacation slideshows, you’ll eat this up; if you’re a fan of fast-paced action thrillers, you might get a little restless.

DeMille pumps up the suspense with direful warnings of ubiquitous secret spies and gruesome torture chambers, but Mac’s Cuban nemeses are more Keystone than Castro. His personal adversary is their tour guide-turned-informant Antonio, who says things like “Cuba is like a mother who welcomes the return of her sons and daughters,” and who is easily bamboozled by appeals to his personal vanity. It’s hard to make the bad guys chillingly sinister when they seem like bumbling clowns.

To be fair, Mac’s scorn is fairly omnidirectional: he snickers that “Yalies, like vampires, can recognize one another in the dark” — good line — and he intermittently punctures Sara’s aggrieved sense of loss by pointing out that a desire for a return to wealth and privilege is hardly the zenith of patriotic idealism. And like many staunch ex-soldiers — DeMille, remember, is a decorated veteran of combat in Vietnam — he is distrustful of U.S. policy elites, with special vitriol being reserved for what Mac refers to as “The Company” — the CIA. “The Cuban exile groups and the CIA,” Mac concludes, “deserved each other.”

A bigger problem with “The Cuban Affair,” one unavoidable but regrettable, is the way current events can outstrip even the most careful research — or aggressive publishing schedules. DeMille has built his novel around the politics of the vaunted “Cuban Thaw,” a circa-2015 rapprochement that already seems distantly historical.

Mac, meanwhile, is an interesting entry in DeMille’s pantheon of crusty protagonists. He is looser and goofier than the tightly wound ex-cop John Corey, but he retains the DeMille hero’s customary irreverence and sardonic dislike of bureaucracy. Like Corey, he represents a version of the Long Islander’s mythic self-image: at home on boats and in bars, tough, funny and unpretentious, with a sideways kind of American pride and a hidden philosophical nature. “Somewhere in between the cynical lies and a naive trust in the human race,” Mac muses, “was the true human condition: complex and capable of anything from heroism and self-sacrifice to betrayal and murder.”

The dark side of this, to my view, is the way DeMille’s irreverence edges over into neocon crankiness; it takes some gumption, after all, to write a book about Cuba that pillories the natives for being willing dupes and brainwashed automatons. He is not alone among thriller writers in cultivating this tetchy reactionary streak, although it will not matter to the legions of fans who will scoop up “The Cuban Affair.” They may be less forgiving of the boring stretches.

DEMILLE SIGNS COPIES OF ‘THE CUBAN AFFAIR’

WHEN |WHERE Thursday, Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. Book Revue, 313 New York Ave, Huntington

INFO 631-271-1442, bookrevue.com

WHEN | WHERE Friday, Sept. 22 at 7 p.m., Barnes & Noble, 91 Old Country Rd., Carle Place

INFO Wristbands will be distributed first come first served. 516-741-9850; barnesandnoble.com

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