Dancing to Almendra takes place in Mafia-dominated 1950s Cuba before Castro takes over. It begins with a bizarre killing of a hippopotamus at the local zoo and young journalist Joaquín Porrata is sent to write up the story. Joaquín usually covers fluff pieces but desperately wants to be a real reporter covering more important things. He stumbles onto something at the zoo where he learns that the killing of the hippo was a warning to mob boss Umberto "Albert" Anastasia, who really was murdered in 1957. Joaquín starts investigating and begins to uncover an incredible story. He is threatened, beaten, warned and scared the hell out of, but he keeps on investigating and uncovering more and more.
As the investigation deepens, Joaquín’s life starts to spin out of control. He travels to New York, meets both Meyer Lansky and George Raft and finds out much more than any person should know about the Mafia.
The characters are all intensely interesting and detailed. Joaquín’s father and brother Santos, his lesbian sister, and his tragic martyr of a mother are all fascinating. Yolanda, the ex-circus performer, one-armed mulatta lover of Joaquín, as well as Santos Trafficante and mother of a trapeze artist is simply too wild and wonderful not to love.
The story is told in Joaquín’s hard-bitten, matter-of-fact voice with alternating chapters told in a mystical way by Joaquín’s lover Yolanda. The Cuba of the '50s comes to life with Mayra Montero’s incredible writing. She paints a decadent picture of nightclubs, music and gaudy casinos where an underlying threat of revolution is bubbling to the surface.
Dancing to Almendra is a gorgeous book about a crazy time and Montero manages to paint both the garish, brightly lit surface as well as the darkness underneath it all with a deft hand.