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 “Beautiful María of My Soul,” a wistful song composed by Nestor that evokes the memory of a ravishing woman who abruptly and mysteriously abandoned him in Cuba. Though he marries the bookish Delores Fuentes in New York, Nestor never overcomes his melancholy over the loss of his beloved. Shortly after the Mambo Kings’ auspicious television debut, the despondent Nestor is killed in an automobile accident. Cesar, who works in a meat-packing plant and then as superintendent of an apartment house, gives up playing songs of love. “Beautiful María of My Soul,” however, has been preserved on record, while the Castillos’ triumphant visit to the set of I Love Lucy survives in reruns. Listening to the recording and watching the television program, Eugenio, Nestor’s only son, marvels at art’s power to immortalize, to overcome his father’s death and his uncle’s self-destructive, alcoholic self-pity. For Eugenio, the cathode-ray tube has performed a veritably Christian miracle: “the resurrection of a man, Our Lord’s promise which I then believed, with its release from pain, release from the troubles of this world.” So, too, does Hijuelos’s novel perform the literary miracle of capturing the aspirations and exasperations of its thwarted characters’ fleeting lives.
Oscar Hijuelos’ life in an advertising agency had little to do with his passion for writing. When he first began thinking of the story that would become The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, he knew that an uncle and an elevator operator would be his models. The uncle, a musician with Xavier Cugat in the 1930’s and a building superintendent patterned after an elevator-operator-musician merged to become Cesar Castillo, the Mambo King. Cesar’s brother, Nestor, laconic, retrospective, lamenting the loss of a lover he left behind in Cuba, writes the song in her memory that draws the attention of Ricky Ricardo. He hears “Beautiful María of my Soul” as he catches the Mambo Kings in a seedy nightclub where gigs are cheap but long. Ricky’s interest changes their lives. The book altered Hijuelos’ literary career by winning for him the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1990.
As the book opens, Cesar rots with his half-empty whiskey glass tipped at the TV beaming reruns. He seeks the I Love Lucy spot featuring Nestor and him as the Mambo Kings. Nestor has died. Cesar pathetically broods on the aging process, cirrhosis, and the loss of flamboyant times. Cesar’s old, scratchy records—brittle and warped—resurrect his music stardom. He laments his...
(The entire section is 2,945 words.)