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Originally published Friday, July 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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"Missy" and "Telex From Cuba": Hidden worlds in history

Two debut novels, "Missy" by Chris Hannan and "Telex from Cuba" by Rachel Kushner, infuse historical fiction with a new vitality, as they bring to life, respectively, a drugged-up bad girl of the 1860s American West and an American corporate enclave in 1950s Cuba.

Seattle Times book critic

Author appearance

Rachel Kushner

The author reads from "Telex from Cuba,"

7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Elliott Bay Book Co., Seattle;

free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

Say the words "historical novel," and some readers start picturing fusty velvet drapes and stately marble corridors. Two new debut novels — one taking its inspiration from the slang, sights and sounds of the 1860s American West, the other from American corporate conduct in 1950s Cuba — show the genre can have fresh, unexpected vitality in the hands of the right author.

"Missy"

by Chris Hannan

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 297 pp., $24

Flash-girl Dol McQueen thinks being continually gonged on missy is no big deal — not compared with the downward spiral her boozy, blackout-prone mother is caught in.

Whoa, there! I hear you saying. What's a "flash-girl"? Who, or what, is "missy"?

They're the key ingredients in Scottish playwright Chris Hannan's rowdy riot of a debut novel, set in the American West of the 1860s.

"Missy," the book, is a blast on several counts. It brings alive the vernacular of its era as though its 50-year-old author had grown up speaking it. And the voice of its impetuous 19-year-old "flash-girl" (prostitute) narrator is so antic and persuasive, you have to wonder if Hannan has gender-changing as well as time-traveling powers.

Then there's the fun of seeing the events of the novel through a haze induced by Dr. Golly's Painless Medical Cure, an opium tincture that Dol refers to as "missy" ("gonged," I assume, is self-explanatory). Dol doses up regularly while dealing with death threats, obnoxious "sams" (johns) and a mother who refuses to recognize her at times ("I believe I would remember a mulatto love child").

The west-to-east action starts in San Francisco, where Dol and her colleagues are fleeing the bad vibes of a fellow flash-girl's suicide. While heading toward Virginia City, Nev., Dol comes into possession of a rum-crate of stolen opium, which mixes her up with some very nasty company indeed. Her odyssey takes her through the deserts and mountains of eastern Nevada, with trigger-happy soldiers, vicious juvenile gangsters, peeved Indians and westward-headed immigrants complicating matters along the way.

In interviews Hannan says he relied on first-person accounts rather than formal histories to capture the flavor of the era. His research efforts pay off right from the very first sentence: "I expect you have the consolation of religion, or the guidance of a philosophy, but when me and the girls get frazzled, or blue, or rapturous, or just awfully so-so, we shin out and buy ourselves some hats."

He's just as good on mountain flora ("small humorous trees that looked like a cross between a pine and a broccoli") and drug sensations ("When you take missy you spread out like a peacock's tail, and it feels like that's the number of eyes you have").

Best of all is Dol, who has a sharp eye for human foibles, even if she can't always apply it to herself: "I guess when Life gives a person a good kicking, it teaches them a painful lesson; it teaches them they don't want to learn any more lessons, and makes them harder and more fractious than ever."

The kick that Life ultimately gives Dol is nothing she or the reader could anticipate.

"Telex from Cuba"

by Rachel Kushner

Scribner, 322 pp., $25

Cuba before Fidel Castro's revolution is only half a century away from us in time — but the milieu Rachel Kushner depicts in her stunner of a novel will be completely unfamiliar to most readers. It's an American corporate enclave in Cuba's Oriente Province where Kushner's mother grew up, home to both a United Fruit Company sugarcane plantation and a U.S. government-owned nickel mining operation, later nationalized by the Castro regime.

"People have no idea, the scale of things," one character comments. "Fourteen thousand cane cutters. Eight hundred fifty railcars. Our own machine shops, to repair every part in the mill. Our own airstrip." Not to mention an Americans-only country club (with yacht access) and a generous supply of servants at bargain prices.

Narrated from numerous points of view, "Telex from Cuba" chronicles six years in the life of this privileged Little America that coincided with Fulgencio Batista's second and final stint in power (1952-1958). The result is a fluid, eye-opening symphony of a book, with American voices dominating, but with Cuban, Jamaican and Haitian voices — imported cane-field, mining and domestic help — chiming in.

Kushner's period detail is terrific, and her characters — stiff-necked American bosses; their more sympathetic, acerbic or fluttery wives; their wide-eyed offspring for whom Cuba, in some cases, is the only home they've known — are finely drawn. She's especially good at tapping into the layered nature of children's perceptiveness: their vivid apprehensions, their belated understandings.

The book opens with a literal crackle and bang, as teenager K.C. Stites recalls the first incident that spelled the doom of American corporate control of the Cuban sugar industry: a rebel-set fire that puts the cane fields up in smoke. From there the novel circles through Havana nightclubs and rebel encampments and back to the American colony again.

Real historical figures mix with Kushner's fictional creations. The attraction of Batista's offer to American corporations — "no strikes, no labor laws, no taxes, no problema" — is obvious. So is the objection that Castro and many field workers have to this arrangement.

A last master stroke is the inclusion in the cast of a Havana exotic dancer, Rachel K, who has clandestine connections with every power player in the book. It's a bold piece of artifice that works: a trickster surrogate who lets author Kushner vicariously savor the excess and glamour of the era she depicts, while also indicting it.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@ seattletimes.com. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998, and has also published four novels.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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