THE Mariel boatlift - Fidel Castro's attempt to embarrass the Carter administration by unleashing a flood of Cuban prisoners, political and otherwise, to find their freedom in the United States - furnishes the backdrop of Christine Bell's second novel. It's set in Miami, 1980, as the last prisoners straggled out. The taut, grim, beautifully written opening pages take place in the thoughts and dreams of Juan Raul P'erez, who's been in prison for 20 years. Now 57, P'erez has little in common with the ordinary criminals or even with the other political prisoners. Far from having participated in something as dramatic as the Bay of Pigs invasion, his chief ``crime'' was having had a job selling advertising for a pro- Battista newspaper.
At the time of his arrest, P'erez was a respectable, middle-class family man with a wife, Carmela, and a little daughter, Teresa, both of whom escaped to Miami. P'erez delayed leaving in order to be with his sick father, and the delay cost him his freedom.
The opening scenes that portray the prisoner's state of mind are a tour de force. Numbed by years of fruitless waiting, the long-time inmates envy the fresh hatred of the newly interned. Waking, P'erez counts his pulse to assure himself that he is alive. Asleep, he dreams a recurrent dream of the separation from his family and the way that time seemed to freeze the day he was taken to prison.
But with his sudden release, the gears shift, and the novel becomes a kind of tragi-comic soap opera: colorful, diverting, crisply written and plotted, but slicker and shallower than the first pages lead readers to expect.
En route to Miami, where he hopes to be reunited with his wife and daughter, P'erez is thrown into the company of the vivacious Dottie, who is hungry for the freedom to buy lipstick and nail polish and to fall madly in love with someone like Elvis Presley or John Wayne. (She's strictly a female female, looking for a hopeful future in the arms of a brave and free male.)
As the still-numb, dazed Juan Raul P'erez flounders helplessly amid the chaos of immigration and refugee camps, the resourceful Dottie begins assembling a fictitious ``family'' of P'erezes in the hope that this will improve their standing on the waiting list for sponsors. She casts Juan Raul as her ``husband,'' rounds up a shell-shocked old anti-Castro guerrilla as her ``father-in-law,'' and later recruits a handsome, young, petty thief to function as their ``son.''
While Dottie is busy enlarging - and looking after - her ``family,'' P'erez's real wife, Carmela, continues waiting and hoping, as she has faithfully done for 20 years. In some ways, she has become as much a prisoner as her husband - not just because she has been waiting, but because her brother Angel, determined to protect her from Miami's high crime rate, has turned her house into a veritable little fortress of fences, burglar alarms, and pearl-handled pistols.
It's a comedy of errors with more than a hint of violence and tragedy. The characters, from Dottie with her ``Cuban madonna hips'' to the tough-talking brother Angel and his good-hearted mistress Flavia, a nightclub singer who believes every word of the songs she sings, are stereotypes, albeit lively ones. Yet, Bell succeeds in conveying a sense of what it is like to undergo the shock of dislocation, reunion, and reorientation. She also succeeds in giving us the flavor of life among the community of Cuban immigrants in Miami.
Yes, the flashy Dottie turns out to have a heart of gold beneath her mountains of mascara; yes, the prison-pallid Juan Raul finally begins to revive; yes, there is laughter, there are tears, and lots of local color. ``The P'erez Family'' is a neatly crafted divertissement, but not much more than that.