At the time of his death in 2013, Oscar Hijuelos had been working for a decade on a novel about Mark Twain and Henry M. Stanley, the explorer famous for his greeting, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” The idea for the novel was born when Hijuelos found references to a friendship between the men. The result, published posthumously as “Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise,” attempts to parse the secrets of this friendship between one of the world’s greatest writers and one of its famous explorers — inventing an earlier meeting for them and sending them on an adventure into 19th century Cuba.
“Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise” shares themes from some of Hijuelos’ previous seven novels: adoption, male friendship, exile, Cuban history and celebrity. The novel poses as a pastiche of invented documents as many popular 19th century novels did (Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” for example), with excerpts from letters, an unfinished memoir and journal entries. It begins with an unintentional concordance: Stanley’s wife, the portrait artist Dorothy Stanley, is assembling her late husband’s autobiography for posthumous publication, much as Hijuelos’ widow, Lori Carlson-Hijuelos, did with this book. She sends the manuscript to Twain, referred throughout the novel by his birth name, Samuel Clemens, because the account of their meeting is at odds with what she knows to be true. She asks for comment, but Clemens declines, suggesting a secret between the men — a secret that the novel struggles to deliver.
The invented trip to Cuba is the strongest section of the novel. Stanley and Clemens head there to search for the former’s adoptive father, who he fears is lost. This adventure concludes early, however, after which the narrative becomes a puzzling love triangle, as Clemens, we are meant to believe, falls in love with Stanley’s wife.
For all that, Clemens seems oddly subdued throughout the book, his dialogue not at all like his writing, which was famous in part because of his unmistakable voice. The many sections of stiff expository dialogue lack the vibrancy we remember of Hijuelos’ style as well. The result is a novel where the characters don’t sound like themselves, and neither does the author.
Here we see Hijuelos’ greatest difficulty in writing the novel — that of imitating two of the 19th century’s most famous literary men, one also known to us as among the cruelest colonizers of the Belgian Congo. Stanley’s adventures were conducted at an extravagant human cost. In recent years, there’s been an attempt to “balance” the historical record, suggesting that his reputation as a brutal man was his own invention, done to fight class snobbery with mythmaking. His career was haunted by accusations that he had fabricated his adventures. But even if he lied about half of what he did, the other half is full of atrocities.
Hijuelos does allude to this in the historical note at the beginning of his novel — but he also treats it with a striking lightness. In one of Lady Stanley’s invented diary entries regarding her husband’s work for King Leopold II in the Congo, she writes: “‘One day’, Stanley once told me, ‘people will look back and say what I did was a good thing.’”
Explicating what is wrong here is hard and even perhaps impossible, because “Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise” is, as it must be, an incomplete work. Hijuelos is not available to answer our questions. What we have feels not quite like a novel, then, and more like a ghost ship, the draft before the final draft.
Reading it is like wandering a vast stage set for a novel more than a novel itself, with puzzling facades and an excess of sentimental inventions that work to cover over both Stanley and Twain’s real accomplishments as well as the genocidal colonization of the African continent, turning them into heroes for what is finally little more than a bromance with a love triangle that ends with Dorothy’s exclusion: The novel’s closing image is her vision of the men entering the gates of heaven together and without her.
I know it feels like a tribute to publish a writer’s last, unfinished work — but “Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise” ultimately does justice neither to its author nor to his heroes, much less his readers.
Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise
Grand Central: 480 pp., $28
Chee’s second novel, “The Queen of the Night,” will be published in February.