Book: Venceremos by Howard Waxman

Fun crime novel set in Vietnam-war-era Cuba

November 9, 2011

Howard Waxman


Self published, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-936447-60-2

312 pages


Disclosure: I am a friend of this book’s author.

Howard Waxman has a background in the theater and so it’s not surprising that it’s the characters and their dialog that make his novel Venceremos work so well. (Venceremos means “we will win” in Spanish and is a rallying cry especially associated with Che Guevara.) The year is 1970 and our main character is Jay Cardinale from Brooklyn. Jay was drafted and sent to Vietnam where he became a sort of an accidental hero. Returned to America on leave, he decided that he wasn’t going back to Vietnam and decamped to Canada.

As the book begins, Jay is temporarily living at a commune on Vancouver Island. On a trip to town to pick up mail and supplies, he’s approached by two American officials. They insist that he meet with two other Americans, Ed and Lauren McWilliams, who were the parents of a friend Jay knew as a young radical in New York. Their son, Edward, had been living in their Manhattan townhouse with various other young radicals. One, Roger Chumley, was making bombs there and, apparently through carelessness, managed to blow up the house and Edward. The four Americans want Jay to travel to Cuba as part of the Venceremos Brigade (volunteer laborers helping with the sugar cane harvest) to assassinate Roger, who is living in Havana. The McWilliamses are influential as well as rich and they’ll get Jay accepted into the Venceremos Brigade and will arrange for a pardon for his desertion if he succeeds. At first Jay declines, but more pressure is applied and eventually he agrees to go. Of course, not everything is as it seems.

That’s an entertaining enough premise for a novel. But it’s Howard’s sense of characterization and dialog that really make the book work. For example, Jay meets a retired rodeo cowboy on his bus ride across Canada to meet the ship that will take him to Cuba and they go to a bar during a break in the trip:

    “You come here often?” I said to him.

    “I know you’re making a joke,” he said. But yes, I used to come over

    this way a lot, and this would be the place where I liked to drink.

    Good people and a good jukebox. Name’s Lyndon, by the way. John


    He held out his hand. I shook it.

    “Jay Cardinale,” I said. “So where you from, John”

    “Got a little place about halfway between Calgary and Red Deer. How

    ’bout yourself?”

There isn’t a lot of excitement in that particular exchange but I think that Howard has given us a good bit of characterization there and has done it more deftly than a great many authors can manage.

Of course there is excitement in the book. It doesn’t get going right away but there’s plenty of atmosphere and interesting characters to entertain the reader until it does.