It may come as a surprise to some to learn that not one of the thousands of people you pass on the street each day cares what you’re up to. In The Havana Room, novelist Colin Harrison reaffirms New York as the town that stares right at itself 24-7 but never has time to see anything. It’s a tight and engaging real estate thriller that’s also the story of a man whose life is at a standstill, and what happens when he picks the wrong time to open his eyes and look around.
Like an F/X shot from The Matrix, Bill Wyeth sits alone as the city whips by, blurred into a greasy mess. Formerly a partner at a big-ticket law firm and a doting husband and father, he doesn’t much want to talk about how he came to this place of unemployed inertia: The book begins at a distance, Wyeth unwilling to give us more than a terrifying glance at what happened, but suffice it to say that the crucial Jenga block of his life—his family—got pulled out, and he is lost.
Wyeth says about another character, “You don’t just like the person . . . you want to see if he wins or loses, lives or dies,” and this holds true for our narrator as well. The first 50 pages of the book are almost crushed under all the foreshadowing, but it’s Bill Wyeth that makes it imperative to keep reading. Assorted portentous events lead him to the steak house whose smoky back quarters hold the titular room, where he becomes entangled in a shifty Long Island property deal that is clearly fated to destroy everyone it touches. But so courteous is our narrator that he even tells the reader it’s OK to stop reading—on page 29—perhaps to save people from consequently screeching to their own small stop alongside him (this is the kind of book one can read straight through in a bar, forgetting to look up and pay attention to the beer one ordered).
Harrison, who daylights as a book editor (responsible for Anthony Swofford’s excellent Jarhead), has a whip-smart sense of description that makes it possible to forgive him for sometimes overdoing it on the colorful characters—but hey, this is a murder mystery novel, and it’s a good one. Harrison is also, notably, married to novelist Kathryn Harrison, whose memoir of carrying on a sexual relationship with her father caused many to flip out a few years back. There’s nothing as overwhelming as all that here, but there are shades of that sort of truth, nods to the sordid secrets behind all those faces we see every day, and they make The Havana Room worth slowing down for.