CUBAN RIFFS & Songs of Love : For Novelist Oscar Hijuelos, the Raw Sex and Swagger of 'Mambo Kings' Give Way to the Allure of the Feminine--and a New Case of Nerves

Lydia Chavez's last piece for this magazine was "Los Yuppies," about yuppies in Mexico. She teaches at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley

It was the summer of 1987 and Oscar Hijuelos, a young, struggling writer, had been stuck in front of his word processor for days fiddling with the opening of his second novel. Money was short, the Internal Revenue Service was after him, and his mood was bleak. He picked up the first 50 pages and walked over to the apartment of Philip Graham, a fiction writer and friend from their days as graduate students at the City University of New York. * "He handed it to me," says Graham. "Then he sat across from me with a jug of wine and started to drink. He insisted on staying in the room, watching me read." Graham remembers getting lost in the text, forgetting the noise wafting up from 112th Street. "It was clear that it was very powerful, and when I told him so, he was incredibly relieved. He sent it to his agent and she sold it." "I often wonder," Graham says now, "if for some reason I hadn't liked it, how much longer he would have waited." * "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," a raw riff of lust, sex and soulful music, won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Such accolades would elate most writers. But to Hijuelos, they only raised the stakes. Could he do it again? Nearly six years after his trip to Graham's apartment, the American-born son of Cuban immigrants has a new case of nerves. He's sweating the reception of "The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien," a novel he's come to view as a measure of his literary endurance. "I wanted to get another book out, to get beyond 'Mambo Kings,' " he says. "I needed a sense of accomplishment. I'm very aware that youth is passing, fleeting." * The 41-year-old writer appears to have little to worry about. Reviewing "Fourteen Sisters" in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called it "one of those commodious, emotionally generous books that immerse us in a well-upholstered fictional world." The reader finishes the novel, she writes, "reluctantly, the way one finishes a long letter from a beloved family member, eager for all the news not to end." Farrar, Straus & Giroux is running a first printing of 75,000 copies--the first printing for "Mambo Kings" was 30,000--and the bidding for paperback rights started at $400,000. * While "Mambo Kings" is infused with a masculine perspective of sex, "Fourteen Sisters" is bathed in the feminine. The allure of the Montez O'Brien household envelops men and then takes care of them as completely as a mother attends to a child. And while love in "Mambo Kings" goes unrequited, love for the characters in "Fourteen Sisters" is deliciously pleasant--even for the plump sister Irene, who lives for food and has one of the happiest marriages. As a girl, Hijuelos writes, Irene "daydreams about love, not so much for the sweet kisses and embraces of a man, or the roses that romance was said to bring, but for the boxes of dome-shaped, swirl-topped Belgian chocolates with maraschino-cherry centers." When she finds a like-minded man, their courtship consists of "long bouts of succulent, tongue-swallowing kisses, tongues tasting of sweets and nut breads."

If life for Hijuelos' characters has become less angst -ridden since "Mambo Kings," it remains difficult territory for their creator. No matter his fame--he is probably the country's most prominent Latino voice--he is always reminded of the differences between him and the literary stars who now embrace him.

As stocky and ruddy-faced as a longshoreman, Hijuelos sits in a townhouse off Fifth Avenue, chatting with George Plimpton. He's having a New York kind of day. He's just come from National Public Radio, where he was promoting "Fourteen Sisters," and he'll be heading next for a party thrown by Anteus, the literary magazine, where he'll hobnob with the likes of Gay Talese and Richard Price. And now, here's Plimpton, the arch-WASP of New York literati, interviewing Hijuelos. Except, that's not all Plimpton is doing. "I'm in this incredible place and George is walking around the apartment in his boxer shorts talking to Jackie Kennedy" on the phone, Hijuelos says later. "Amazing. He's known her since he was 15." He pauses. "Jackie," he says again and shakes his head.

Stranger than fiction, one could almost say. But for Hijuelos, whose characters rub shoulders with Noel Coward and Errol Flynn, fiction and fact are often one and the same. Like his characters, Hijuelos grew up in a neighborhood where many of the men, his father included, were drunks, and limousines pulled up at the door only for funerals. Anyone from that neighborhood who might have gone to Plimpton's townhouse would have used the service entrance. Hijuelos tries to explain the milieu of his youth: "We had the sense that we were looked down on." It was an environment bound to produce street-smart kids with giant chips on their shoulders, and Hijuelos was no exception. "Basically, the working class hates everyone else," he says.

The writer laughs at the admission, noting quickly that he's enjoyed meeting Plimpton and the others. Still, Hijuelos is a reluctant literary lion. The power of his writing has given him entree into a different world, but it hasn't told him how to fit in. Uncomfortable with the Plimptons of the world, Hijuelos is also uneasy with the tendency of critics to place him at the forefront of Latino writers, most of whom he has met only since winning the Pulitzer. And acquaintances don't easily become friends, which has been disappointing. Given the option of hanging out with the New York Review of Books crowd or with his girlfriend, Lori Carlson, an editor and translator, and his brother, Joseph, a painter who lives nearby on the Upper West Side, he's likely to go for the familiar.

Frederic Tuten, director of City University's creative writing program, calls Hijuelos "very intense," a writer whose makeup doesn't include being a literary celebrity. "He lives in a simple world and he really wants to be with those people," Tuten says. "He's not a yuppie brat who creates books from nothing; he's lived."

It's no surprise that Hijuelos' confidence has yet to catch up with his literary accomplishments. He won the Pulitzer when he was only 38, but he wasn't exactly an overnight success. He had been writing for more than 15 years. For much of that time, he supported himself as a gofer at an advertising agency. For years, he'd ride the subway to that job, haunted by visions of his father riding the same train to the dead-end job he held until he died. Those are painful memories and Hijuelos can still become melancholy recalling them. Describing his relationship with his hated and beloved father, a theme that runs throughout his fiction, Hijuelos rambles on and then, only half-laughing at his seriousness, says, "Life is a very difficult proposition sometimes."

THE LANDSCAPE THAT SHAPED HIJUELOS' LIFE, AND HIS FICTION, IS THE UPPERWest Side of Manhattan--specifically on 118th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Drive. It is a short block with five- and six-story apartment buildings adorned mainly by fire escapes. It's also the transition between two worlds. To the west, the block ends at the campus of Columbia University, a temporary home to the children of the affluent; to the east, the block trails off in stairs that descend into Morningside Park, frequented primarily by junkies and muggers. Hijuelos' world lies somewhere in between. In his books, as it was in his youth, fathers are often drunk but report faithfully to work; mothers cook and cope, perhaps escaping by writing poetry that's never published. Their children are trapped in the family's dramas, their allegiances continually contested by the fierce love of both parents.

In his first novel, "Our House in the Last World," Hijuelos drew a harsh portrait of his childhood. In the book, the Santinio family--Mercedes, Alejo, Horacio and Hector--is a stand-in for his mother, father, older brother and himself. "Mercedes used to tell Hector about a monster in the hall," he writes. "This was intended to keep Hector from seeing things like Pop falling and grasping at the walls, Pop in that horrid state. She explained that the hallway was dark and narrow and filled with Cuban dead people and the Cuban devil whenever she wanted to cover up the screaming and the fighting. But after a few hours she would drag Hector out of his room anyway and show him Alejo. 'I want you to be a witness to this,' she would say. 'This is your father! Look at him lying on the floor and see what he is really like!' "

"We were the classic dysfunctional family," says Hijuelos as he prepares to order lunch at a trendy Italian restaurant on Columbus Avenue. But it's better to let "Our House" tell it: By the time Hector was in his teens, he felt "part 'Pop,' part Mercedes; part Cuban, part American--all wrapped tightly inside a skin in which he sometimes could not move."

Young Oscar escaped by watching television, reading and protecting himself in the cocoon of religion. While his parents never stopped fighting, he says, there was always "a lot of affection in my household and that makes a big difference." And, no matter how much his father drank the night before, he got up every morning to cook in the kitchen of the Biltmore Hotel. "The No. 1 thing that drives me through the days is a work ethic," says Hijuelos. "When I think of my father I think of his work ethic first."

Hijuelos became estranged from his household after losing some of his ability to speak Spanish. At the age of 4, his father sent Oscar, his brother and their mother to Cuba for the summer--his only visit to the island, where he still has relatives. On their return, Hijuelos came down with a critical case of nephritis, an acute inflammation of the kidney, and spent nearly two years away from the family in a hospital and in a convalescence home for children in Connecticut. He still remembers the way children moaned and how the nuns stripped the sheets from the beds after children died.

Hijuelos survived, but not quite intact. Forced to speak English, he forgot much of his Spanish. Although they came to this country in 1943, Hijuelos' parents spoke primarily Spanish at home, but Oscar was no longer fluent. "I always had the feeling that speaking Spanish was punitive," he says. "I felt I had been exiled from it and then was put in an awkward position of feeling ashamed because I couldn't or because I had all these weird feelings about it. My parents continued to speak to me in Spanish, but they could have been more formally corrective. They were so happy that I was around that they were accepting of my limitation."

Being cut off by language, or experiencing the lack of it, is a recurrent theme in Hijuelos' novels. Although, he says now, he speaks Spanish well, he has difficulty with the grammar. As a result, when he converses in Spanish, he says, "I'm shyer than I should be." In "Fourteen Sisters," he describes the plight of Emilio, his stand-in. The last of 15 siblings and the only son, Emilio is raised by the oldest sisters and never learns Spanish from his Cuban mother. "His lack of Spanish wasn't something he'd think about very much, but in the days when he thought he might see action and the possibility that he might be killed had come to him (first at boot camp and then on the crowded deck of a transport ship), he started to regret that, for all the years he shared the same roof with his mother, he had never really gotten to know her, not in the same way as he'd known his sisters, or in the way he knew his father."

Hijuelos says he could get the drift of what his mother was saying, but real communication was a problem. "I never felt truthfully that I could really sit down and have a conversation with my mother--not literally because of the language but because I was on another wavelength." He remembers lying in bed with his mother reading comic books in English. "She taught me how to read, but there were holes. I remember once she read the word cute ," he says, shaking his head. "She didn't know what it meant. Cute," he repeats, bemused.

Now 80, Magdalena Hijuelos still lives in the same apartment where she raised her sons, fought with her husband and finally found friends in the community of tenants. Plastic protects the sofas, and heart-shaped frames, plastic flowers and doilies cover the tables. She is startlingly good-looking, her red hair cropped short, her eyes fiery and her body svelte in slacks and a sweater--a look-alike for Rita Hayworth, a character who pops up in Hijuelos' novels. She chatters in rapid-fire Cuban Spanish, careening from memories of little Oscar doing his homework in front of the television to impromptu recitations of her poetry. She's a proud mama; she says she'd like to put a plaque on the outside window, proclaiming the apartment on West 118th Street as "the very place where Oscar Hijuelos, the first Hispanic to win the Pulitzer Prize, grew up."

It's only when she's asked about her reaction to "Our House" and its tough portrait of their family life that Magdalena Hijuelos is at a loss for words. She leans back on the sofa, wraps her arms around her chest and taps her foot. Finally, she shrugs and says, "I'm temperamental." She smiles, sits up, and offers to recite another poem.

Although family lore now has little Oscar writing short stories early on, Hijuelos says most of these accounts are revisionism for the benefit of reporters. More often, he drew and dreamed about becoming a cartoonist. One of his happier memories from high school, however, is writing a poem in the style of Walt Whitman, and being pleased when "it made all the kids laugh." "I was always feeling like I was playing catch-up but that was one of the few times I felt a sense of self-confidence," he says. "The next year I discovered alliteration, and I remember enjoying groups of words like 'frolicking freely,' but I didn't think I would be a writer until later."

His first break came when he submitted a short story to a writing class at CUNY and fell under the tutelage of Donald Barthelme, the surrealistic short-story writer who was often published in the New Yorker. Hijuelos remembers Barthelme, who died in 1989, as a "word man" and "lover of language" who taught him some control over his writing. He responded by writing more. And more. "Oscar was extraordinarily hard working," says Tuten. "If I asked students to bring in a writing exercise of five pages, he would bring in 30 pages. He was in touch with the unconscious in a very primal way."

In his early 20s, Hijuelos dated an actress, attended a lot of plays and "wrote a couple of bad ones." Nothing sold, and he ended up doing inventory control for an advertising agency that places ads in the city's subways and buses. In much the same way as he works now, he began "Our House" as a collection of short essays, notes and dreams scribbled on scraps of paper and tucked into a black-and-white composition book. It was the late 1970s and he was still tormented by his father's life. Pascual Hijuelos had died of a heart attack in 1968, never having moved beyond the Biltmore or 118th Street. In family photographs, Oscar looks like his father. Joseph, his brother, says that Oscar is also more like their father--both gregarious and shy with an "earthy pleasantness."

While the similarities please Hijuelos now, they initially terrified him because he was afraid of repeating his father's life. "Our House," he says, began in an effort "to come to terms with my father's experience. I was walking around with a lot of anger and needed to climb out of an emotionally charged atmosphere." In "Our House," he describes his father's plight: "He didn't take any of the other jobs because he wanted to be nice, but underneath that he didn't think he would be good enough, and underneath that he didn't want to go away from the bar." After Alejo was buried, Hector at times looked in the mirror and "Alejo had stepped into him. Horacio said he had the same feeling, but he didn't let it bother him. He had a good feeling about Alejo, but not Hector."

Becoming a "functional alcoholic" like his father is a part of that fear, and Hijuelos admits there have been periods in his life when he clearly drank too much. "The solitude of writing is really difficult," he says. "I'm always aware that it would be easy to flip into a pattern because I have all the time in the world." He has gone to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and watches his drinking now. Generally, he tries to keep in shape; his writing room is littered with running shoes and weights, and he bums cigarettes to keep his smoking down. "I've been very attentive to the writer's life," he says. "Now I want to be attentive to my personal life, to make decisions about getting married, having children."

AS A LATINO WRITER, HIJUELOS IS SUBJECT TO A PECULIAR KIND OF SCRUTINY. While few critics talk about the genre of white writers, a writer who happens to be black, Asian or Latino is instantly classified by his ethnicity. Then, his or her works are analyzed as to whether they're black, Asian or Latino enough. U.S.-based Latino writers have to measure up to two standard-bearers: their U.S. contemporaries and their widely read Latin American counterparts.

Although CUNY's Tuten says Hijuelos is more grounded in "American social realism" and the psychology of his characters than are Latin American novelists, it's predictable that readers will think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for example, when they first encounter the magical realism in "Fourteen Sisters"--particularly the butterflies that flit through it and other books by Hijuelos. It's true that Marquez's books sit on Hijuelos' bookshelves, but so do those of Federico Garcia Lorca, Gore Vidal and Antonia Fraser. Hijuelos laughs when a reporter brings up the butterflies. "I can't write about butterflies?" he asks.

Although Hijuelos has never hung out with other U.S. Latino writers or considered himself part of a group, critics were quick to cast him as their leader. Some Cubans, particularly the conservative Miami Cuban-American community, wanted a closer look at Hijuelos and his political views. Meanwhile, reporters who profiled Hijuelos after "Mambo Kings" won the Pulitzer stressed his roots in Spanish Harlem (he actually lives closer to black Harlem) and marveled over his supposedly un-Latin looks. (In fact, Hijuelos, who has reddish hair and fair skin, resembles his Spanish-born grandparents.)

It's not only his looks that aren't Latino, some critics charge. Enrique Hernandez, the editor of Mas, a national Spanish-language magazine, calls Hijuelos an "excellent, accomplished" writer, but challenges the authenticity of his Cuban voice. "I don't think Oscar's work has come to terms with Cuban culture and with Latin American culture," Hernandez says. " 'Mambo Kings' is a real downer. I don't remember anyone cracking a joke, and a lot of Latin life is about joking, making fun, the darker the situation the more fun. The person who can't keep up with the jokes is the nerd."

All this is mildly irritating to Hijuelos. "If it's true that Cubans never get melancholic, I had the misfortune of coming across different Cubans," he says. "In fact, I find that a cultural group can have a range of emotions, and it is relatively restricting to limit them to a stereotype to say they can't."

Nicholas Kanellos, founder and publisher of Arte Publico Press, which published its first book in 1979 and now puts out 25 books a year, mostly from Latino writers, says critics have to be ready to accept myriad perspectives from U.S.-based Latino writers. "Each one has its place," he says. "Oscar's one of a cadre of Hispanic writers who have come out of creative writing programs. The majority of Latino writers wouldn't be accepted or even apply to those programs. There is some feeling that the trained writers have been less faithful to their backgrounds, that they are more Anglo than Hispanic, but their experience is different."

A case in point, Hijuelos says, is the expectation that he take a stand against Fidel Castro. In his books, the Cuban revolution causes upheavals in the lives of some of the characters, but not everybody flees. While the Cuba of today is not a place where he wants to live, he says, he also has no nostalgia for the Cuba of dictator Fulgencio Batista, where malnutrition and corruption were rampant. Besides, he notes, "I cannot allow it (the Cuban revolution) to take on more weight than it would have to a Cuban who has lived in New York his whole life."

Hijuelos does say he's pleased if his success has made it easier for other Latino authors to get published and he has helped a couple. "He's been incredibly encouraging, and in his own way he has recommended me around," says Elena Castedo, whose 1990 novel, "Paradise," was nominated for the National Book Award.

"It makes me feel good that they feel pride," Hijuelos says about his fellow Latino writers. "On the other hand, I feel it's a little weird. My attitude now is no one pays my rent but me. You have to look after yourself. Collectiveness holds people back."

He bridles at the way in which some of his contemporaries attempt to market themselves as politically correct Latino writers. The emphasis should be on the quality of the work, he says. He recalls the flap when critics discovered that "Famous All Over Town," the 1984 book about a Latino family in a Los Angeles barrio, was really written by a white, Yale graduate named David Lewis James using the nom de plume of Danny Santiago. "Does it mean any less because it wasn't written by a Chicano?" he asks. When he adds that he once considered changing his name from Oscar Hijuelos to Oliver Holmes, he doesn't seem to be joking.

ON THE STRENGTH OF THE REVIEWS FOR "OUR HOUSE," WHICH CAME OUT IN1983, Hijuelos won several grants, including one from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Rome Prize, which paid for a year in Italy. At the time, two strong images dominated the entries in his black-and-white composition books. One was a photograph of his uncle, who'd been a musician with Xavier Cugat in the 1930s, along with Desi Arnaz; the other, from his imagination, was a building superintendent as a captain of a ship. From these images, Hijuelos created the story of Cesar Castillo, the Mambo King, and his brother, Nestor. For years, Hijuelos, in New York, in Italy and at various writers' colonies, labored over "Mambo Kings."

It is a raw, powerful and earthy depiction of the lives of Cesar and Nestor, recent Cuban immigrants to New York and instant denizens of the city's Latino music scene. The brothers never make it big, but they're popular enough to sustain the hope that someday they might. The closest they get is a guest appearance on the "I Love Lucy" show, after Desi Arnaz hears them play at a New York nightclub.

When they aren't behind the microphone, Cesar is bedding down women, and Nestor is pining over Maria, a mulatto who dumped him in Cuba. When Nestor is killed in an auto accident, Cesar abandons music for the bottle and ends up piecing together a life as the superintendent of an apartment building. His lust for women is supplanted by huge plates of fried platanos , arroz con pollo , black beans and other Cuban fare. "He still liked to go out with women, but found the consumption of large meals almost as pleasurable. He was happiest when he would go to someone's house for dinner and find himself on a blind date."

Hijuelos laughs now at the bawdiness of "Mambo Kings." It is "a physical act," "a young man's book," he says as he breaks off a piece of crusty Italian bread and runs it through the sauce that had accompanied some braised artichokes. When "Mambo Kings" came out, however, the reaction shocked him. Men came up to him at book parties and described their sexual exploits; women propositioned him. More to the point, critics raved. Novelist Grace Edwards-Yearwood, reviewing "Mambo Kings" in the Los Angeles Times, wrote: "Hijuelos has painted an erotic and desolate landscape where people surge to life and diminish with terrifying exactitude."

Then Hollywood paid $250,000 for the rights, sparking a craze for mambo music as well as for "Mambo Kings." The novel since has been translated into more than 10 languages and has gone into a second printing.

Suddenly, Hijuelos was almost rich and famous. It wasn't entirely to his liking. "You can't suddenly disappear into the woodwork. I miss the simplicity of my life."

With the earnings from "Mambo Kings," Hijuelos moved to a larger place in the same building on West 106th Street. That's only 12 blocks from where he grew up, but in New York, some people move less than that in a lifetime. The money also allowed him to add to the collection of Egyptian antiquities that decorate the sparsely furnished rooms. The sensation caused by the "Mambo Kings" Pulitzer and movie premiere made it difficult to work. So did a severe case of eczema, brought on, he says, by lawsuits filed by two women who claimed they'd been misrepresented or had inspired characters in the book. (The cases have been settled.)

Nevertheless, Hijuelos kept working, retreating every day to his writing room. Joseph Hijuelos says that for his brother, writing is survival. "He enjoys the fame, but he thrives on the writing," he says. "It's essential to his existence." His personal life also provided new anchors. Hijuelos, who was married briefly at the beginning of his writing career and had been known as a man-about-town, began dating Carlson ("Fourteen Sisters" is dedicated to her), whom he met soon after "Our House" was written.

Carlson agrees that Hijuelos has become more "settled" since "Mambo Kings" won the Pulitzer. " 'Fourteen Sisters' definitely reflects a level of spiritual contentment that Oscar did not have before. This new book in large degree reflects my priorities, which are family and heritage."

"Fourteen Sisters" is imbued with a new serenity. Compared to the stormy dramas of his childhood and his previous novels, "Fourteen Sisters" is calm almost to the point of dreaminess. It is the story of the Montez O'Briens, the multiply hyphenated products of the marriage of a Cuban woman and an Irishman who've come to Cobbletown, Pa., to have and raise their large family. Locating them in small-town America, says Hijuelos, was an attempt to push the frontier on the territory a Cuban-American could use as writing material. His imagery, he says, drew on a trip he had taken as a young child through Pennsylvania's Amish country--a trip first mentioned in "Mambo Kings."

Reading "Fourteen Sisters," in fact, is a lot like falling into the lap of someone else's wonderful childhood. It's not a perfect family--inevitably, Nelson O'Brien has a drinking problem, and communications are often difficult in a household where the mother speaks only Spanish, but there's a warmth and love that's almost tangible. For many of the 14 sisters, nothing that follows in the rest of their lives ever quite measures up to their years at home. That's even more true for Emilio, the only boy, a child so completely pampered that he's suckled not only by his mother but also by his oldest sister. When the vagaries of the world become too cruel, Emilio and the rest temporarily return to the family or, after the parents' deaths, to their eldest sister, Margarita.

Perhaps it's a reflection of Hijuelos' success and the distance he's traveled that many of the vices that destroyed the characters in "Our House" and "Mambo Kings" lose their potency in the gentler world of "Fourteen Sisters." The sex and drink that ravaged Cesar, the obsessive love that destroyed Nestor, the food that makes many of his characters balloon into grotesqueries have become comic and kind. Some of the sisters have loving and lusty sex lives into their 80s. For others, men are almost incidental, pleasant "diversions from routine." Emilio endures a tragedy and fights alcoholism but settles into a happy life.

"Fourteen Sisters," says Graham, "is really a giant book of prose poems." He calls it an "act of bravery" that reflects Hijuelos' growing confidence as a writer. "There's something of the brashness and ambition of Oscar in doing something so different from 'Mambo Kings,' " Hijuelos' old friend says. "As much as he can doubt himself, there is something inside of him that knows he's very good."

Already, Hijuelos' black-and-white composition book is filling up with notes. "1772 Italy," is one entry; "AIDS," is another. Hijuelos declines to say if either will become part of his next novel, but he'd like to continue to expand his literary landscape. Will he ever write a novel without Cuban-American characters? Hijuelos, striding down Broadway and heading toward a comic-book store, laughs. "No," he says. "They're always flirting at the edge of my mind."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°