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.)
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 brother’s death by leafing through fading pictures.
In The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Hijuelos presents pre-Castro Cubans, who, after World War II, streamed to New York. All communities may strive for the American Dream, but in Latino quarters, music, the mainstream of a culture, sought to free the oppressed. Hijuelos pursues thematic progression: The Castillo brothers become, for a moment, cultural icons by their appearance on I Love Lucy. Their fame does not last, however; Cesar comforts his ego with debauchery, and Nestor dies suddenly. The ironically named Hotel Splendour is where Cesar commits suicide.
Cesar, Nestor, and their three brothers grow up in the sugar-mill town of Las Piñas, in Oriente Province, Cuba. The family moves from the mill to a livestock farm where the father, Pedro Castillo, slaughters animals; he is proud of his physical strength and demands respect from his frightened sons with cruel beatings. The powerless mother, Maria, attributes his violent behavior to his hard life since childhood.
As a child, listening to a music box, Cesar learns to dance, and he enjoys orchestra performances. After he hears Eusebio Stevenson playing background music for Hollywood silent films in a movie theater, he requests lessons. Pucho, a mulatto, or person of mixed-race, teaches him music and magic African chants. Cesar challenges paternal authority when he decides to become a musician.
In 1937, at the age of nineteen, Cesar starts his singing career in Santiago de Cuba, invited by the well-known band leader Julián García. Nestor, also musically talented, joins the orchestra. Cesar marries the shy schoolteacher Luisa García, Julián’s niece; they live happily until Cesar starts drinking, shouting, and cheating on his wife. He loves Luisa and their daughter, Mariela, but his macho temperament leads him to fear the loss of freedom symbolized by married life. After they are divorced, Luisa marries a schoolteacher and has another child.
In Havana, as instrumentalists, composers, and singers, Cesar and Nestor struggle to earn a living at a time when American big brass jazz bands are in vogue. They had met Desi Arnaz in Santiago de Cuba and knew about his fame in the United States. Inspired by stories about Cubans who, since the 1930’s, had gotten rich making films in Hollywood or playing in New York, they daydream of achieving the same success.
The brothers arrive as immigrants in New York in early 1949, the beginning of the mambo boom. Sponsored by their cousin, Pablo, they get a job in a meat-packing plant. At night, playing in clubs and dance halls, they become performing stars, the Mambo Kings, with their own Latin dance band. They live with Pablo’s family near Harlem; his kindhearted wife, Miriam,...
(The entire section is 881 words.)