Posthumous publication of an ambitious, atypical historical novel by the Pulitzer Prize–winning author.
When Hijuelos (The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, 1989, etc.) died of a heart attack in the fall of 2013, he had been working for more than a dozen years on this 19th-century epic concerning the unlikely but close friendship of two of the most famous men in America. They had met working on a riverboat, a couple of aspiring writers, well before one would travel to Africa in search of Dr. Livingstone and the other would become a beloved humorist under the pen name of Mark Twain. Since Hijuelos has long been known for voluptuary narratives of Cuba and Cuban America, filled with song and sex, the Victorian primness of the various tones he employs here stands in stark contrast (though a trip to Cuba proves pivotal). The novel encompasses long stretches of unpublished manuscripts purportedly written by Stanley and his wife, as well as extended correspondence between each of them and Twain. Stanley had been an orphan taken under the wing of a benefactor (whose surname the young man took), and there’s a sense throughout that the way Stanley portrays his life is not the way it actually transpired. With Stanley’s health and that of Twain’s wife in parallel decline, there’s a hint of romantic triangle, what Dorothy Stanley calls “some kind of autumnal infatuation,” though history left that attraction unrequited, as she remarried shortly after her husband’s death. The meditations on time and death in the book’s last third are particularly poignant given the author’s own untimely passing, but the whole of the novel is unwieldy, with awkward dialogue (“I am wondering what you can tell me about yourself”) and juxtapositions (a section titled “Clemens in That Time” follows Lady Stanley’s extended account of her husband’s death). An Afterword by Hijuelos' widow explains that he was working on the novel up to his death, having written “thousands of pages that he attempted to winnow down to publishable size, even as he continued to expand upon the story.”
This book is good news for Hijuelos fans, but considering its flaws, it's tantalizing to think of what it would have been like if the author had managed to finish it himself.