Oscar Hijuelos Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 3,771 words.)