THE PEREZ FAMILY
By Christine Bell
Norton. 256 pp. $19.95
ONE OF THE more common complaints made against American fiction these days is that our best and most serious writers appear more interested in anatomizing the private lives of their characters than in coming to grips with the times in which they live. There are exceptions, of course, novelists like Russell Banks, Don DeLillo and Robert Stone, who understand how artistically impoverishing it is to exclude politics and history from their work. Still, to an uncomfortable degree our literature remains in thrall to a species of miniaturism, that view of the world where the private life exists in splendid, autarchic separateness. It is the great strength of Christina Bell's second novel, The Perez Family, that not only has she dared to take on a great subject, the vicissitudes of exile, but to set her book in Miami, one of the most complicated and interesting cities on earth.
As with so many of the best Miami stories, real as well as imaginary, Bell's book begins inside one of Fidel Castro's prisons. Juan Raul Perez had been one of those petty servants of the Batista regime -- he worked as a sales representative for a pro-government newspaper -- who was arrested after the revolution, accused of plotting against the new state, and sentenced to life in prison. This, of course, is no literary conceit. Most of those who held real power under Batista easily made their way to Miami or Madrid, leaving the revolution to wreak its vengeance on the unimportant and the innocent. Perez rots in his cell, more dead than alive, dreaming of his wife and daughter in Miami. Bell's evocations of the numbness of the long-time prisoner are beautifully accomplished. "I barely know that I'm not dead yet," Perez thinks, as he comtemplates with wonder the ability of newer inmates to still rage at their fate.
Suddenly, Perez is released. It is 1980, the time of the Mariel boatlift, when the Castro government, forced to allow tens of thousands of Cubans to emigrate to the United States, decided to empty its prisons as well. Perez is packed on a bus and taken to the coast. As he mills about in the crowd of hundreds of would-be refugees waiting for the last places on the boats that will take them to Florida, he encounters Dottie. "My name is Dottie," she tells him as their boat churns across the Florida Strait, "not Dorita ever again." Dottie is the ultimate survivor. As Bell describes her in a wonderful, bravura passage, "She had been screwed by basic patriarchy by being born a bastard child. She had been screwed by aristocracy by being born to a maid. She had been screwed by military dictatorship by having her common-law husband die fighting for Batista, and her next lover -- on Castro's side, she wasn't taking any chances -- died in the Bay of Pigs invasion. She had been screwed by capitalism because the U.S. had skimmed the fat off Cuba before the revolution. She had been screwed by communism the most skillfully because it had promised. And promised. And promised. And promised."
Unlike Perez, whose notions of America are vague in the extreme and who hopes only to be reunited with his family, Dottie knows exactly what she's after. "John Wayne, Elvis Presley, rock and roll, blue jeans, nail polish," she tells the Cuban authorities -- and here she might as well be talking not just for much of Cuba but much of the communist world -- "I want everything you say I cannot have." Dottie takes Perez in hand. When they finally arrive in Miami, and, as they remain held in the Orange Bowl waiting to be paroled, Dottie decides that the only way they will get preferential treatment in jobs and housing is to pretend they are married. To foster the illusion, she enlists a crazy old man to pretend he is her father and a young delinquent to pretend he is her son. The Perez family is complete. Juan Raul is persuaded that his wife has gone off with another man, and, in any case, his passivity is, if anything, greater than it had been back in his prison cell.
In the meantime, there is Miami to contend with. Bell's Miami is the Cuban city of exiles, but Cuban Miami not as the honest burghers of the Cuban-American Chamber of Commerce might see it but as Elmore Leonard might present it on a reasonably benign day. Dottie, of course, takes the grifters and thugs and con-men in stride. In the end, after a series of misadventures, some of which are essential to the plot and some of which seem calculated to let Bell have fun with Miami's baroque seaminess, Perez finds his wife and Dottie her stand-in for the Duke. Neither union is a success, however. It is by no means an improbable denouement in that painful, improvised world called exile.
Some American writers have complained that the tragic history of other countries, while undoubtedly making things worse for writers as citizens, is a boon to literature. There, as Philip Roth once remarked ironically, it often seems as if one can say nothing but that everything matters, whereas here one can say everything but nothing seems to matter. It stands to reason that as the new wave of immigration fills America not only with people but with their tragic stories, writers conscious of history and politics will start to give the miniaturists a run for their money. The Perez Family is a step in that direction. It is witty, charged and full of life. Although, like all quest books the end is something of an anti-climax and the writing, though exuberant, is often inexcusably sloppy, the book is by any measure a welcome antidote to the prevailing style and, particularly in the first half, considerably more as well.
David Rieff is the author of "Going to Miami" and the forthcoming "Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World."