I love books that take me to another place, that show me something of someone else’s culture or something new about mine – books that entertain as well as educate me in the customs, language and cuisine that comprise another way of life. Johnny Diaz’s Beantown Cubans is not one of those books. It’s not even close.
Beantown Cubans is the story of Carlos Martin, a Miami transplant who finds himself teaching high school in Boston after suffering the recent loss of his mother. He hooks up with Tomas “Tommy” Perez, another former Miami resident who now writes for a Boston newspaper and together they go to malls, out to bars, stop for lunch, work out at the gym, talk about Tommy’s alcoholic boyfriend Mikey, listen to Gloria Estefan and have coffee at Barnes & Noble. And that’s pretty much it.
But these boys are fiercely proud of their Cuban roots. They must be – they mention them in every single frickin’ chapter, screaming so loudly you can almost hear the upper case letters heralding their CUBAN values, their CUBAN parents, their dark CUBAN good looks, their CUBAN accents and their search for a good CUBAN sandwich. If that wasn’t enough to get the point across, they pepper their speech with Spanish words like “hijo” and “bueno” and “loco” to remind you how CUBAN they are. It’s enough to make you don your slicked-back Ricky Ricardo wig, grab your conga drums and play “Babalu” on the rooftop until you’re devoured by rabid neighborhood squirrels driven into a CUBAN rodent frenzy.
None of this would be so bad except that Diaz’s CUBAN characters are two-dimensional and bland. They are to CUBAN what Taco Bell is to Mexican food. It’s a good thing his chapters, which alternate the two POV characters, are titled either “Tommy” or “Carlos,” because their voices are not distinct enough to tell them apart. Diaz, a pop culture writer for the Boston Globe by trade, falls prey to the journalistic habit of telling too much and not showing enough. Create multi-dimensional characters that your readers can invest in and let them tell the story. Stay out of it as much as you can.
But this formula has worked for Diaz in two other books – Miami Manhunt and Boston Boys Club – and so another Kensington career is made. If someone recommends this to you, be stern. Slap them viciously and delete them from your cell phone.
It’s the CUBAN thing to do.
Reviewed by Jerry Wheeler