A masterpiece of mood and setting, character and remembrance, The Cuban Club is Barry Gifford's ultimate coming-of-age story told as sixty-seven linked tales, a creation myth of the Fall as seen through the eyes of an innocent child on the cusp of becoming an innocent man.
Set in Chicago in the 1950s and early 1960s against the backdrop of small-time hoodlums in the Chicago mob and the girls and women attached to them, there is the nearness of heinous crimes, and the price to be paid for them. To Roy and his friends, these twists and tragedies drift by like curious flotsam. The tales themselves are koan-like, often ending in questions, with rarely a conclusion. The story that closes the book is in the form of a letter from Roy to his father four years after his father's death, but written as if he were still alive. Indeed, throughout The Cuban Club Roy is still in some doubt whether divorce or even death really exists in a world where everything seems so alive and connected.
Barry Gifford has been writing his Roy stories on and off for over thirty years, and earlier Roy stories have been published as Wyoming, Memories from a Sinking Ship and The Roy Stories. But it is in The Cuban Club that he brings the form he has created in these stories to its crystallization. Indeed, to find precedents for The Cuban Club, we must look not to other story collections, but to other creation myths--to Gilgamesh, or the Old Testament, or Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire trilogy. Roy's age in these stories wends back and forth between six and nineteen and back to twelve. He sees with the eyes of a seer who doesn't seem to age, and knows not to judge the good or the bad in circumstances or people, or even to question why things are as they are, instead filled with the romance of the world teetering on catastrophe always, but abounding in saving graces.
A short story by Barry Gifford from The Cuban Club
Roy was sitting at the counter in the Lake Shore Liquor Store on a Saturday morning in November sipping a vanilla Coke listening to Lucio Stella and Baby Doll Hirsch talk.
“Remember Mean Well Benny?” asked Lucio.
“Worked for Jewish Joe. Spidery little guy. Got rung up for killin’ a crooked cop.”
“McGuire, in Bridgeport. The Paddy guarded the mayor’s house.”
“What about him?”
“He’s out. Mastro seen him at Murphy’s day before yesterday, eatin’ a steak without his teeth in.”
“What happened to his teeth?”
“Guess he had ’em yanked in prison. Mastro said Benny put his choppers in a glass of water while he gummed the steak.”
“He got plans?”
“We should find out.”
“How’d he get that tag, anyway?”
“It was Jocko named him Mean Well because too often he did things he wasn’t told to do that didn’t turn out well.”
“Time he offered Lou Napoli’s girl, Ornella, a lift to Lou’s crib, only Lou wasn’t expectin’ her and happened he was entertaining a waitress from Rickett’s at the moment. Napoli worked for Jocko and when Lou told him how it had come about Ornella stabbed him and he almost lost a kidney, Jocko said, ‘You know, Benny, he means well.’ After that, he was Mean Well Benny to everyone in Chicago, even the cops.
“Shootin’ McGuire was a mistake, too. He thought it was McGuire had leaned on Jewish Joe, so he threatened him one evening in Noches de San Juan, a PR bar on North Damen. McGuire took offense, busted Benny in the mouth, so Benny parked a pair in the cop’s chest. This was after McGuire got thrown off the force.”
“Maybe why he got false teeth in the joint.”
Roy liked going with his father to his liquor store on Saturday mornings. All kinds of people came in and Roy liked looking at and listening to them, even and especially if they were a little or a lot crazy. A week later, a day before his ninth birthday, Roy heard Lucio Stella tell Baby Doll Hirsch that Mean Well Benny’s corpse was found with his throat cut stuffed into a garbage can in an alley in Woodlawn.
“What could he been doin’ in that neighborhood?”
“Probably lookin’ to do some woolhead a favor he didn’t need.”
After Lucio Stella and Baby Doll Hirsch left, Roy asked his father if he had known Mean Well Benny.
“He used to come around. Why do you ask?”
“I just heard Mr. Stella tell Mr. Hirsch that Mean Well Benny’s body was found in a trash can.”
“Some men’s lives don’t amount to much, son. They get on the wrong road and don’t ever get back on the straight and narrow.”
The following Saturday morning Roy’s father took Lucio Stella and Baby Doll Hirsch aside and said something to them Roy couldn’t hear, then they left without finishing their cups of coffee.
“Dad, did you tell Mr. Stella and Mr. Hirsch to leave because of me?”
“Are they on the straight and narrow?”
“They don’t know what it means.”