(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Like Mexican American writers Sandra Cisneros, Richard Rodriguez, and Gary Soto, Oscar Hijuelos emerged at an opportune moment, when the burgeoning Latino population had also piqued an interest in books by Latino authors. Three of his first six books are classic American immigration narratives, though his characters hail from Cuba instead of Russia, Italy, or Norway. Another, The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien (1993), follows the lives of a family created by a mother from Cuba and a father from Ireland. Though Edward Ives, in Mr. Ives’ Christmas (1995), is not explicitly Cuban, he is an orphan foundling whose origins might be almost anything, and he becomes a Hispanophile who chooses to live in a New York neighborhood populated by Cubans and Puerto Ricans. Israel Levis, of A Simple Habana Melody, is not Cuban American but rather a Cuban who expatriates for more than a decade in Paris.

In The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, as Cesar Castillo, green from Havana, walks about the streets of 1949 New York, he is unnerved by its polyglot clatter—“a constant ruido—a noise—the whirling, garbled English language, spoken in Jewish, Irish, German, Polish, Italian, Spanish accents, complicated and unmelodic to his ear.” The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, like Our House in the Last World and Empress of the Splendid Season (1999), focuses on the community of first-and second-generation Cubans living in New York in the decades after World War II. An Irish landlady named Shannon is a minor exception, but Bernardito Mandelbaum, an American Jew who, like Edward Ives, embraces Cuban culture in spirit, is not. The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien expands the story into another generation that ceases to speak Spanish and whose ancestral homeland is Ireland as well as Cuba.

A Few Moments of Earthly Happiness, Hijuelos’s working title for his third book, might apply as well to all of his fiction, whose hapless, lonely characters are driven by desire and haunted by the realization that life is brief and satisfaction even briefer. The engine of the plot is sometimes sexual desire, as in the obsessive philandering graphically detailed in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love and A Simple Habana Melody. But the driving force of Hijuelos’s fiction is always a longing for something either unattainable or impermanent. Witness Lydia España’s disappointment in the working-class existence into which she, a child of Cuban privilege, has fallen in Empress of the Splendid Season.

In The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love and A Simple Habana Melody, desire is largely male, centered in the large, insistent sexual endowments of the novels’ main characters. Hijuelos does create sympathy for the thwarted longings of Delores Fuentes, the bookish woman Nestor marries merely as a surrogate for his missing María. But the elusive singer Rita Valladares is mostly a foil to illustrate Israel Levis’s erotic inhibitions. As if to appease critics who still complained of his failure to create a strong and sympathetic female character, Hijuelos offered in The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien a world populated and shaped mostly by women. Yet much of the novel is dominated by Emilio Montez O’Brien, another obsessive womanizer. To find a work by Hijuelos that matches the machismo of the others with a convincing representation of feminine sensibilities, a reader would have to turn to the life of a wistful cleaning lady portrayed in Empress of the Splendid Season.

In Our House in the Last World, Alejo Santinio courts his future wife Mercedes at the Neptuna Movie Theater, where she works as the ticket girl, but the radiant images on the local screen in Holguín, Cuba, do not prepare them for the drabness and drudgery of the life they encounter in the United States. The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love continues Hijuelos’s study in unfulfilled desire—not merely Cesar’s grotesque sexual adventuring but also the unrequited love that Nestor translates into the Mambo Kings’ most enduring creation, the haunting song that the Castillo brothers perform for Desi Arnaz during their enchanted visit to his television program. Called “Beautiful María of My Soul,” it is an aching evocation of the ravishing woman who never ceases to haunt the amorous young Nestor, years after she abruptly and mysteriously abandoned him in Cuba. Similarly, “Rosas Puras,” a simple Habana melody, immortalizes Israel Levis’s impeded desire for Rita Valladares. Like the Shakespeare sonnets that vow to outlive the physical beauty of the poet’s beloved, musical compositions in Hijuelos’s fiction serve both as a monument to mutability and frustration and a tribute to the redemptive might of art.

For all the hardships that their characters endure, most of Hijuelos’s novels offer the possibility of transcendent grace through a brief brush with celebrity. After he leaves Cuba, Alejo Santinio encounters nothing but disappointment and failure. His single luminous moment occurs in 1961, with the unexpected visit of Nikita Khrushchev to the hotel kitchen where Alejo toils. Years later, the humble Cuban immigrant lives on, in triumph, in the glossy photograph that captures him beside the famous Russian. Similarly, a broadcast tape beatifies Cesar and Nestor Castillo during the single moment that denies the frustration and banality of their lives, their appearance on network television with the glamorous Desi Arnaz. Photographs and films perpetuate Emilio Montez O’Brien’s brief career as a movie star, a buddy of the charismatic Errol Flynn, who also makes a cameo appearance in Empress of the Splendid Season, where he provides an intimation to Lydia of a luminous life. Israel Levis recalls his friendships with composer George Gershwin, actor Gary Cooper, and writer Ernest Hemingway, even as he regrets the elusiveness of happiness.

Hijuelos’s novels are longitudinal studies of individual lives developed through and ravaged by time. None of the other characters is quite as saintly as the commercial artist Edward Ives, who demonstrates compassion even for the man who murdered his son. Yet Hijuelos’s own empathy is everywhere apparent in his portraits of fallible, sensual men and women who never seem equal to their hopes and their memories.

Publicly exuberant, Nelson O’Brien takes to private tippling, as insulation against his chronic melancholy, the same sort of anguish over the vanity of human wishes with which the lives of Cesar Castillo, Lydia España, and Israel Levis conclude. “Ally yourself with progress and tomorrow!” exhorts Forward America, the inspirational manual that becomes Cesar’s guidebook soon after his arrival in New York. “The confident, self-assured man looks to the future and never backwards to the past.” Hijuelos’s theme, like that of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, and so many other writers of classic American fiction, is the revenge of the past on the optimist. Ambitious for fame and fortune, Hijuelos’s characters end up afflicted by the melancholy of futile desire. Whether or not their author’s fame itself endures, his books offer the mortal pleasures of articulate anxiety. They are a wistful, wise reminder that more than ninety miles separate Cuba and the United States and that a sea of trouble divides ambition from accomplishment.

Our House in the Last World

First published: 1983

Type of work: Novel

Hijuelos traces the fortunes of the Santinios, a family that migrated from Cuba to Spanish Harlem in the 1940’s.

A Bildungsroman and Künstlerroman about an unhappy family of Cuban immigrants struggling in Spanish Harlem, Hijuelos’s first published novel culminates with Hector Santinio’s declaration of redemptive literary ambition: “I think that one day I would like to write a book, something that would so please my mother and my Pop, if he was still alive.” Our House in the Last World is just such a book, a text that, for the autobiographical Hector Santinio, as for his author Hijuelos, preserves and honors the tribulations of a working-class family struggling to succeed in a strange new land.

Letters from his sister in New York inspire Alejo Santinio with dreams of adventure and prosperity. In 1943, he and his wife Mercedes depart Holguín, their small hometown in Cuba’s Oriente Province. But the reality of life in Manhattan is much harsher than Alejo, forced to take a menial, low-paying job in a hotel, had imagined it. Alejo’s one transcendent moment in an otherwise dreary existence comes when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev steps into the hotel kitchen and is photographed beside him. A romanticized memory of their house in the last world—the lost world of pre-Castro Cuba—becomes a constant source of torment for Alejo and Mercedes in New York. But the two Santinio sons, Horacio and Hector, do not share their parents’ Hispanic associations. After contracting a serious illness during a visit to Cuba,...

(The entire section is 3771 words.)