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THE MAMBO KINGS PLAY SONGS OF LOVE by Oscar Hijuelos

THE MAMBO KINGS PLAY SONGS OF LOVE

By Oscar Hijuelos

Pub Date: Aug. 21st, 1989
ISBN: 1401310028
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Hijuelos' debut, Our House In The Last World (1983), was a fervid and striking one, drawing on the misery of a Cuban ‚migr‚ family in New York that had--collectively--lost its mind. Not surprisingly and quite satisfyingly, Hijuelos again (and with more heft) deals with Cuban life in America from the 50's onward, but here adding particularly lovely rhythms. This is an encyclopedic portrait of Latin music as it was played in New York in the 50's and 60's: the musicians, the restaurants, the eroticism, the great communal joy of making art at the societal margins. Cesar and Nestor Castillo come up from Cuba already with a band of their own, the Mambo Kings: in no time they are renowned, and find a lucky break in the person of Desi Arnaz, who listens to their heartbreaking signature song, ""Beautiful Maria of My Soul,"" and promptly invites them on to I Love Lucy as a feature act. (Amaz's generosity to his fellow Cubans makes him one of the heroes of the book.) The real Maria was a woman in Cuba whom Nestor never got over, and who proves key to his character: he is a melancholic, a man half-there despite eventually having a family, and someone antipodal to lusty, appetitive Cesar, who devours life in great messy draughts. Between the two (and the families and the band members and the petty gangsters and the record producers and the restaurants and the clubs), Hijuelos strings a remarkable net, catching wonderful information about the Latin music of the time and the heroic but unpretentious artists who made it. Less happily, Hijuelos has forgotten to make this all a novel. Once poor Nestor leaves the scene (about halfway through the book: killed in an auto accident, driving while brother Cesar pets with a bimbo in back), the book must subsist on the pathos of Cesar's lonely decline into illness, age, and powerlessness. Memories flood him--but 200 pages of them, chipped and random, strain a reader's sympathy. Hijuelos keeps us reading by means of frequent, sapid dollops of sex--Cesar is a satyr--and these moments have a nice innocence and pleasure about them, but there's no conflict or drama anywhere. As a document, then, this is utterly superb. As art (and especially in light of Hijuelos' debut), it's much, much weaker.