OUTCAST

By Jose Latour

Akashic. 217 pp. Paperback, $13.95

By Richard Lipez, who writes mysteries under the name of Richard Stevenson

Famously situated just 90 miles off U.S. shores, Cuba has remained a kind of Outer Mongolia for mystery readers. It's true that accomplished foreigners such as Graham Greene and William F. Buckley Jr. set popular Cold War spy novels there, but none of the insider's-view mysteries written by Cubans in the 1970s and '80s--when the Castro government awarded prizes to ideologically correct crime fiction--has made it into English translation.

Now, luckily, from across the gulf comes Jose Latour's ideologically unbound noirish thriller--noirish both about the socialist paradise where Latour was born and still lives and about the capitalist paradise of Florida. And while "Outcast" is a bit choppy in the way it's put together, this and other flaws are more than compensated for by its evident authenticity of background and by a wealth of considered thought and raw feeling about what it has meant to be Cuban, both in Havana and Miami, over the past 40 years. A lot of "Outcast" is also terrifically suspenseful.

At the center of Latour's first novel published in English (there are six more in Spanish) is a 44-year-old Havana high school English teacher named Elliot Steil. Steil spent several childhood years in the United States before his American father, a sugar refinery engineer, abandoned him and his Cuban mother in rural Cuba just before the revolution. A bright and thoughtful man, Steil has suffered professionally for his perceived lack of revolutionary fervor.

One of Steil's less able colleagues knows enough to be embarrassed when he's offered the job of English department head over Steil, but the man lunges at the opportunity. It's the perks he's desperate for. For his work Steil receives just $2.25 a month, plus a shabby, small flat and a card that secures a meager ration of edibles, mostly pasta and stale bread. His girlfriend kids Steil about his protruding ribs.

While the island still has its Marxist zealots, the predominant attitude among Steil and his acquaintances is exhausted resignation. Daily life is precarious, and black-market hustling is the only way for the politically unconnected to survive. But Steil never seriously considers joining a rickety-raft group trying to make it to Key West because (a) he loves what's left of pre-Castro Cuban culture and its easygoing ways and (b) he's afraid of the sea.

Then a surprise visitor forces Steil to make a huge choice. An obviously well-off, middle-age American tourist turns up at his door--immediately triggering suspicions among the neighborhood PC patrol--and announces that he is an old World War II buddy of Steil's father. "Don Gastner" says that Bob Steil, guilt-ridden over deserting his Cuban family, bequeathed a sum to be used by Gastner to rescue Elliot, whose mother is dead, from his bleak life in a communist state. All he has to do is swim out to Gastner's yacht anchored at sea. It hits Steil that life in Cuba is killing him, mentally and maybe even physically, and after discreetly tying up a few loose ends he heads for the beach.

It would give too much away to describe the precise nature of Gastner's ghastly betrayal, but suffice it to say that Steil does eventually make it to Miami, where--suppressing his rage if not his bitterness--he sets out to discover why someone in the United States would want to have him murdered. Part of the fascination of Latour's novel lies in Steil's transformation. In Cuba there is something held-in about him, as if he is less than fully formed. Latour shows how the totalitarian state stifles the development of both personality and character. After he faces death--even accepts it--Steil sees himself as freed from moral constraints where his enemies are concerned, and Florida provides a nice array of opportunities for a man who has concluded that for him justice is possible only outside the law.

Now that he is free of Cuba, Steil blossoms first as a sociopath. In Florida, where "bucks, not faith, move mountains," he hooks up with people whose amorality is more casually ingrained and for whom sociopathy is just another way of life. A Cuban American car thief nicknamed Hairball helps Steil pick up the fast cash he needs to carry out his plans. Tony Soto, a former student of Steil who's now a Miami cop, introduces him to avuncular and helpful Ruben Scheindlin, an entrepreneur whose wealth comes from the illegal sale of smuggled chlorofluorocarbons, the refrigerant banned globally because it depletes the ozone layer.

The villains here, when Steil finally tracks them down, turn out to be less interesting than anybody else in "Outcast." They're little more than Marxist cartoons of capitalistic wretched excess. Another weakness of the novel is structural; flashbacks to Steil's family life are illuminating early in the novel, but as the plot heats up, they impede the flow. Also, occasional clunky English could have been fixed by a good line editor.

Those qualifications aside, "Outcast" is a remarkable novel. It's both an absorbing thriller and a subtle and knowing portrayal of life in one society where, Latour clearly believes, the social control leaves people a little less than human, and in another society where--among the lowest and highest social strata--freedom has become "a form of anarchy."