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A Cuban canvas


Harper-Collins, $22.95

John Sayles is now so identified as a filmmaker that people probably forget he was initially a fiction writer, author of Pride of the Bimbos and of Union Dues, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1977.

"Los Gusanos" (the worms) is what Castro called those who fled the revolution in Cuba, a motley of the old order and those who felt trapped and betrayed by the revolution. In Miami, in 1981, they form circles within circles, adventurers and people with a political past, grieving fathers, mothers and sisters of those who perished in the Bay of Pigs disaster.

Like Sayles' Matewan, Los Gusanos is a big, ambitious narrative, more a "canvas" than a novel, bringing together many threads of past and present, assembling a variety of dynamic, prototypical characters _ the kind of anthology extravaganza that Hollywood used to make in the 1950s, with strips of big stars and lots of spectacle and drama.

That may not be a totally fair comparison, and probably too easy to make in this case, but Los Gusanos is as easy to knock as it is to praise. There are a number of strong characterizations, and the writing is often quite outstanding, in spite of the percentage of it in untranslated Spanish.

But Sayles has the kitschmeister's fondness for high dramatic contrast and for participatory symbolism, sometimes to good effect, for instance in his recurring image of los gusanos.

"They are stuck here on the Isle of Pines," says a former soldier of the revolution, skimming tiny yellow worms off the surface of a bowl of prison soup, "trying to survive on the same diet we do, starving. They give in to despair and decide to drown themselves in this poor excuse for soup. Here even the worms have no meat on them."

This circular prison of Castro's "echoes with voices, the voices of a thousand men, calling from floor to floor, calling across the inside balconies, calling to the free sky overhead. Restless men walk around and around their tier; the ones training for escape or just for the sake of training go up and down the stairways between the tiers. It is like being in an aviary with birds that can't fly, in a hive with bees that can't sting, a huge cylinder packed to the top with men who have nowhere to go but in circles."

Sayles can surely write, and Los Gusanos builds to a powerful climax. The best sequences though are set in Cuba before the revolution, and involve dramatic pairings of doomed lovers: the Batista thug who abuses and eventually murders a child prostitute, the charismatic widow who entices a fisherman to run guns for the guerrillas _ he is arrested and murdered before he returns from the mission that earns him the right to claim her love. In the Miami chapters, there is an inspired paralleling of the emigre community with an old men's hospital.

But Sayles overreaches, and Los Gusanos is a sprawl, a big sloppy dog that wants you to pet it and wants to knock you on your tail at the same time. That scene on the Isle of Pines, for instance, evolves into a naif discussion of Shakespeare's Richard The Third, and concludes with a paraphrase of the centerpiece line from Kurt Vonnegut's novel Mother Night:

"You have to be careful what you pretend to be Sometimes there is no road back."

Sayles in Los Gusanos reminds you of half a dozen other writers, Conrad most conspicuously, but more precisely Stephen Crane, whose The Open Boat he reprises in abbreviated version. Los Gusanos is a remarkable book, too big and too ambitious and by too energetic a talent to dismiss in any important way, and yet too unwieldy and too often flatfooted to call an important novel.

But it would make a terrific movie, and I hope it will; because all it lacks now is coloration, gesture, star presence in its characterizations, a medium economical and straightforward enough to carry the burden and blunt the excesses of this big and overcrowded story.

David Walton is writer who lives in Pittsburgh.