"Cuba"
By Stephen Coonts
St. Martin's Press, 390 pages
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Reviewed by John Orr

With "Cuba," Stephen Coonts has produced a rich little nugget of adventure fiction that gets a lot done in a great big hurry.

In just 390 pages that turn like leaves in a windstorm, he shines a fascinating light on Cuba and its relationship with the United States -- the scarred past, the uncertain future, and reasons why we should care. He also gives us plenty of techno-military and other adventure, heroes aplenty of both genders from the U.S. and Cuba alike, a feel for the humanity involved, mixes in a little adult romance and even cracks a political joke or two.

Tom Clancy would need at least 900 pages to do all that.

Coonts calls what he does "speculative work of adventure fiction." Like Clancy, he wants people to know that despite the end of the Soviet threat, there are still monsters in the closet, and we need a handy-dandy military to deal with them. Coonts' novels -- other than the ones that deal with our past in Vietnam -- speculate on bad things that could happen, and how the United States military might have to deal with them.

With "Cuba," Coonts employs a particularly scary issue -- biological warfare -- a topic Clancy explored in "Executive Orders." Clancy's take on it was impressive but in need of an editor; we saw again and again that yes, it is terrible when someone contracts the ebola virus. And again, and again.

Coonts' bug of choice is a mutated poliomyelitis virus, and he lets us know that we should avoid it and that it can kill people, but doesn't take 150 pages to do it.

And, Coonts' speculation about economic issues couldn't be more timely -- businesses fair and foul in the United States are lined up with capitalistic gleams in CEOs' eyes, waiting to operate in the island nation that was once an American playground -- perhaps free of American regulation. And, there are always the drug cartels to consider -- and Coonts does.

As "Cuba" opens, it is the near future. Castro knows he is soon to die, and is contemplating his past, and what is to happen to his beloved island after he dies.

"The truth was that he had made a hash of it. Cuba's problems had defeated him. ... the average Cuban was worse off today than he had been those last few years under Batista."

He disobeys doctor's orders and lights up his first cigar in ten years. As he enjoys it, he thinks "Whoever came after him was going to have to make his peace with the United States. They were going to have to be selective about America's gifts, rejecting the bad while learning to profit from the good things, the gifts America had to give to the world."

But when the pain comes again, Castro drops his unfinished cigar -- which presages his fate; he will die before he can name the person he wants to succeed him as Cuba's leader -- thereby setting up the Mr. Toad's Wild Ride of intrigue and violence that follows.

There are several people in the running to replace Castro, including one -- Alejo Vargas, head of the secret police -- who has administered a secret program to develop biological warheads, and who has six operational scud missiles with which to deliver them.

Also in the potential-leader ranks are two brothers -- Maximo Luís Sedano, Castro's finance minister, and a priest, Hector Juan de Dios Sedano. Maximo doesn't really think he can take over, but does hope to get his mitts on the $53 million in drug money Castro stashed in Swiss banks. Hector mainly wants to help the people of Cuba, for whom he is a popular hero, and who wonder why Castro hasn't already thrown him in prison.

Mima Sedano's eight sons touch on every class and economic level in Cuba, from cane-cutters and mechanics to Maximo and Hector, and the last of them -- Juan Manuel "Ocho" Sedano -- is another hero of the people (a baseball player), and the one destined to show us what it is like to try to cross the Gulf Stream in a creaking old fishing boat, overloaded with too many Cubans trying to sneak into the United States.

And, there is Mercedes -- widow of another Sedano brother, and current mistress of Castro. She loves the macho dictator, and she loves Cuba. It is her soothing hand who strokes his brow when he is in pain, and who ... is involved in a considerable amount of intrigue too important to give away here.

With "Cuba," Coonts brings back his long-time hero, Jake Grafton (after having introduced a different set of characters in his last novel, "Fortunes of War").

He is Admiral Grafton now, in charge of a battle group tasked to remove a cache of American biological weapons that had been sent by mistake, years ago, to the American base at Guantánamo Bay.

He is still flinty of eye and in top shape, but grayer and wiser than in "Flight of the Intruder," the first of the five previous Grafton novels. He is still a warrior, still driven to do the right thing -- and still cynical about politicians. His orders about safeguarding the weapons are vague -- but he knows if anything goes wrong, it is his head that will be on the chopping block.

Grafton considers biological weapons: "Cheaper and even more lethal than atomic weapons, they were the weapons of choice for Third World nations seeking to acquire a credible military presence."

And, of course, something does go wrong with the shipload of weapons, and Grafton is off to the chase -- as are his longtime friend "Toad" Tarkington; Tarkington's wife Rita Moravia, a red-hot test pilot, on hand to fly V-22 Osprey; a variety of CIA spooks; some disbelieving (at first) Marines; and the rest of the might of the U.S. armed forces.

Most of the action takes place on the ground -- CIA agents sneaking around -- or on the sea -- Ocho's boatmates dying in the sun, and Grafton and Tarkington once again in harm's way -- but occasionally takes to the air. Coonts introduces a raffish Cuban pilot flying a MiG-29, the best fighter plane in the world.

"Finally the two planes were in formation with their wingtips about 20 yards apart.

"'Look at that thing, would you?' Toad enthused. 'Have you ever seen a more gorgeous airplane? ... The Russians sure know how to design flying machines. ...'

"In the Cuban fighter, Major Carlos Corrado took his time looking over the American plane. This was the first time he had ever seen an F-14. Amazing how big they were, with the two men and the missiles under the wings."

During that early, peaceful encounter, Corrado muses that when Castro dies, Cuba will become "a new American suburb, another little beach island baking in the sun ... When that happy day came, Carlos Corrado told himself, he was going to America and get a decent flying job that paid real money."

Coonts has other, more exciting plans in store for Corrado, however, and it's a fun flight for readers, too.