The setting is 1994 Havana - during the “Special Period”, (where Castro promised anyone who wanted to leave could leave - he wouldn’t stop them), soon after the Soviet collapse and the tough embargo still in force on the tiny island nation. An aging revolutionary Usnavy (his name, indeed odd, was given to him by his mother after seeing U.S. Navy ships docked at Guantánamo, where he was born and raised) lives with his wife and young daughter in a illegally modified Havana apartment. He works at the local bodega - where shortages are rampant - and spends most of his free time playing dominoes with his neighbors, many of whom were taking advantage of Castro’s promise and are fleeing the island on anything that would float.
Usnavy is the last of a seemingly dying breed. His friends and family openly mock his commitment to the Revolution, many of his neighbors are engaged in “bisnes” (black market activities to earn the ever desired American Dollar), and all around him he is witnessing the collapse of what he sees as having once been the glory days of the Revolution. He consistently quotes Che Guevara, reads his Jose Martí, and Nicolás Guillén and only has two prized possessions: his daughter’s bike (which gets stolen) and what he thinks is a Tiffany lamp, barely hanging from the makeshift ceiling of his tiny apartment. He even finds another one in the garbage dump and tries to have it repaired, although there are many who are interested in buying it from him - offering him those precious “dollars.” He refuses, clinging to his commitment to the Revolution. The lamp proves to be a poignant symbol throughout the novel, after learning that many of the so-called “Tiffany” lamps around Cuba were actually fakes created right there in Havana. A symbol for the revolution itself? Perhaps.
It is a desolate, depressing landscape and Usnavy tries to navigate the changing times as he watches his closest friends abandon the cause, try to flee, willingly accept items sent to them from their relatives who made it to the U.S, and even his own family yearns for the “better life”, with his young daughter constantly hanging around the Malecón looking northward and his wife, who not only desires a car, but also gets involved in “bisnes” with her neighbors (cooking and serving a bed sheet disguised as meat). The conflict here is having to choose between the love of his family and the love for the Revolution that shaped his entire life. What we are left with, ultimately, is a novel about Cuba - a nation in ruins, as the title suggests - and is skillfully employed by the matter of fact way the author creates the setting, not beating the reader over the head with it but by dropping incidental information and seemingly trivial breadcrumbs along the way.
Like Usnavy’s illegally renovated apartment, the house is no longer structurally sound, and may collapse, at any moment, under the weight of people’s true desires.