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from the September 2009 issue

Guillermo Rosales’s “Halfway House”

Reviewed by Jonathan Blitzer

The Halfway House is one of only two novels Guillermo Rosales—the respected though to date largely unknown Cuban writer—did not destroy before committing suicide in 1993. It is a short but affecting account of the hellish squalor of life in the boarding houses of 1980s Miami, where privately run psychiatric homes host "the dregs of society beings with empty eyes, dry cheeks, toothless mouths"—in the words of one character, those for whom "nothing more can be done."

Rosales himself spent the years following his 1979 flight from Cuba in these very boarding houses. They make up a Dantesque netherworld in which William, the novel's protagonist, identifies as a "complete exile." He flees Cuba only to arrive in Miami as a blight on his family's petit-bourgeois ambitions; they expect a "future winner" only to find "a crazy... frightened guy who had to be admitted to a psychiatric ward that very day." The American Dream William's family is bent on achieving does not admit of the transplant-misfit.

Like his author, William is a literary man. He is a former writer himself (of "bullshit," he says when asked), impressively well read and a devotee of Hemingway. He totes around the boarding house a volume of Romantic English poetry, chancing upon a line by the poet John Clare which seems to suit him: "I am; yet what I am none cares or knows... I am the self-consumer of my woes."

William's woes date back to his communist past. The hollow shell of a person we encounter in William at the book's start is all that's left of him after he has weathered a crisis of identity in Cuba, to which he alludes, only glancingly, as his betrayal at the hands of a communist idea "in which he firmly and desperately believed." He finds a certain camaraderie with Frances, a meek, middle-aged woman at the boarding house with whom he carries on a halting romance. She too was once an activist in Cuba, but her life—like William's—has come to nothing in Miami. In the capitalist States, her years of social engagement are, at best, a dim memory, eclipsed by her inability to adapt to a new life. Until they meet, the two have had to bear their torment alone.

Though the lives of author and protagonist plainly overlap in The Halfway House, Rosales resists collapsing the novel into autobiography. There are telling differences between William and Rosales himself, the most important of which is William's clear-eyed brutality. At the halfway house, William stands alone in seeming lucid, even calculating and cruel; it is never entirely clear that he is mentally unstable. In his useful introduction, José Manuel Prieto praises Rosales's subtlety in creating a character who is far from blameless, but who manages instead to be (by his own admission) both victim and victimizer, bearing the inevitable mark of life under totalitarian rule—an endless complicity in the horrors, abuses, and violence of the regime.

The Halfway House wears its complexity and erudition lightly. Sensitive to historical and psychological ambiguity, it is full of plangent literary allusions and yet has a quality of impossible ease. Anna Kushner's commanding translation captures the unlikely combination of insouciance and resignation that defines Rosales's tone. A certain lurid anger flashes beneath the surface here that the book's wit and charm can only partially cover. If you listen carefully, you can almost hear Rosales wail.

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