Dennis Birch's life has taken an unsettling turn. As a Spanish-speaking baseball scout somewhere in Latin America, working for an unnamed major-league team, his future seems bleak. So when he is offered an opportunity that could be dangerous but extremely beneficial to his career, he is quick to take it. All he has to do is to fly to Cuba and help a phenomenal young pitcher named Ramon Diego Sagasta defect. While Birch's mission seems simple enough, the environment of Castro's Cuba has a way of undoing the best ideas. Rather than the boisterous atmosphere of modern-day Havana, Birch finds himself in a small, dingy room in a small, dirty town full of suspicious people. The simple plan goes awry when Birch, in a false attempt at macho bravado, insults his young charge and receives in reply a piece of fruit hurled at fastball speed. When he awakens, he realizes that he and the young pitching phenom have literally missed the boat. Birch attempts to set things right, but as his understanding of his companion increases, he finds his priorities shifting. Things are starting to get really dangerous.

First-time novelist Brian Shawver has an easy way with language, and his descriptions can conjure up both revulsion, in the person of Charlie Dance an obese, obscene excuse of a man who gives Birch his marching orders and poignancy, as the narrator watches Sagasta's last meal with his family. The plotting is crisp and quick, and the surprise ending will confound most readers' expectations.

The Cuban Prospect is, ultimately, a compelling look at the human condition. It is about the ways we treat each other, both cruelly and humanely; the depths we go to and the sacrifices we are willing to make to get what we want; and how we all manage to achieve our own personal redemption. James Neal Webb can't wait for spring training to start.

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