Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Hijuelos (Beautiful Maria of My Soul, 2010, etc.) revisits the people and experiences whose confluence created his most celebrated work, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989).
The author’s life did not begin propitiously. The son of Cuban immigrants, he developed a debilitating case of nephritis after a boyhood visit to Cuba. After a year in a convalescent hospital, he was finally able to return home, where his mother, a complex figure whom Hijuelos spent decades trying to understand, protected him ferociously. But the author celebrates his father, notably in the book’s dazzling final paragraph. Hijuelos recalls an odd ambivalence about the Spanish language. Able to comprehend it completely, he refrained from speaking it throughout his boyhood, feeling costive whenever he tried. An indifferent student in childhood, he drifted aimlessly through Harlem’s schools, finding himself in and out of a variety of scrapes—fighting, smoking, drinking, some dealing. He took up the guitar, found he had talent, and credits this discovery as the first of several that preserved him. After high school, he bounced around, then began some off-and-on undergraduate programs, beginning at Bronx Community College, eventually ending up at CCNY, where he got into a writing seminar with Donald Barthelme, who became a longtime friend. From then on, good fortune hovered nearby, and he met numerous literary luminaries. He eventually crossed paths with just about everyone from the era—Vonnegut, Mailer, Gardner, Irving. His adolescent memories percolate with sex—with his encounters, his fantasies and even with some graphic recollections involving, in one case, whipped cream, in another, a bride who entertains a wedding guest most generously. The tale ends with the publication of Mambo Kings, its wild reception and its amazing aftermath—and with a stirring condemnation of a literary world that ignores Latino writers.
Uneven—but with peerless evocations of people and of a struggle to find a voice.