Oscar Hijuelos

American author Oscar Hijuelos in May 2007. (Ulf Andersen / Getty Images / July 31, 2011)

Thoughts Without Cigarettes

A Memoir

Oscar Hijuelos

Gotham Books: 367 pp., $27.50

Was there ever a time and place more alive and unpredictable than New York City in the middle decades of the 20th century?

Oscar Hijuelos was lucky enough to live there then, a son of Cuban immigrants. In his often deeply affecting memoir, "Thoughts Without Cigarettes," he describes the odd cast that called his West Harlem street home.

He had German and Irish best friends, jammed with black and Latino jazz musicians — and got mugged again and again. Every so often, the rocket engineer Wernher von Braun walked past his window.

It's a neighborhood where everyone came from somewhere else and was headed somewhere better. But young Oscar grows up without much ambition and distant from his Latino identity. Among other things, he doesn't feel he can rightfully call himself Cuban.

"Who and what am I? Why is it that I hate seeing what I see when I look in the mirror?" he asks.

It's an odd thing to hear from a writer who will eventually make so many Latino readers feel good about being Latino. But eventually, thinking and writing about his New York City period helps Hijuelos figure it all out.

"But don't you know?" a Cuban American therapist finally tells him. "Eres cubano. You're Cuban, after all."

"Thoughts Without Cigarettes" begins with the Hijuelos family's origins in provincial Cuba and their arrival in New York in the late 1940s. And it ends with Hijuelos' coronation in 1990 as the first Latino writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Every Latino writer published since (including this reviewer) owes Hijuelos a debt of gratitude — his work helped open the door of New York publishing to us.His memoir is both a coming-of-age story and a tale of literary awakening, and it contains many a melancholy and uplifting twist.

His personal recipe for success includes two essential ingredients: the forgiving and excellent New York public education system of the day, including the stellar faculty at the City College of New York; and Hijuelos' long struggle to decipher his cultural identity.

His parents hailed from Holguin in eastern Cuba. His father, Pascual, is a man of the countryside, his mother, Magdalena, the daughter of a déclassé family of artists and dreamers. In New York, Pascual finds work in the kitchen of the Biltmore Hotel.

At 4, the young Oscar is a fluent Spanish speaker — until he gets sick on a family visit to Cuba with his mother.

The trip provides him with his only concrete memories of the island, as a place of pepper trees and tarantulas.

But when he returns to New York, he's strangely listless. Diagnosed with a kidney disease, he's forced to spend a year separated from his family at a Connecticut hospital. Surrounded by English-speaking nurses, his Spanish withers away.

"[W]hat I would hear for years afterward from my mother," Hijuelos writes, "was that something Cuban had nearly killed me and, in the process of my healing, would turn my own 'Cubanness' into air."