Hijuelos’s original working title for his second novel was The Secrets of a Poor Man’s Life. The version published as The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love shares those secrets in ornate prose that is often graphically erotic. The book, which became an enormous commercial and critical success and was adapted into a 1992 film, recounts the foiled ambitions of Cesar and Nestor Castillo. The ambitious young musicians arrive in New York from Havana in 1949 and, calling themselves the Mambo Kings, begin to establish careers in the lively postwar Latino nightclubs. While telling the Castillos’ story, Hijuelos also provides a vivid evocation of the music, clothing, idioms, and food of a particular time, place, and community.
Most of the novel is an elaborate flashback from a night in 1980 that the elderly Cesar spends in the Hotel Splendour, a Manhattan flophouse that has deteriorated as much as he has. It is here, during his final, boozy hours, that Cesar listens to the recording that he and his brother made in 1956 and recalls sexual escapades in that same room with Vanna Vane, Miss Mambo of June, 1954. At the end of the day, he reconstructs a thwarted life, themes of which are sex, love, memory, and music.
That life’s single instant of grandeur occurs in 1955, when Cesar and Nestor are invited to put in a brief, musical cameo as fictional cousins of Desi Arnaz on the popular I Love Lucy television show. They perform...
(The entire section is 449 words.)