ArtsATL > Books > Review: Oscar Hijuelos’ “Thoughts Without Cigarettes,” resurrecting the dead

Review: Oscar Hijuelos’ “Thoughts Without Cigarettes,” resurrecting the dead

“Thoughts Without Cigarettes: A Memoir”

By Oscar Hijuelos. Gotham Books, 367 pages.

Author appearance: Oscar Hijuelos will read and discuss his work at a Cuban-themed event at 7 p.m. Monday, June 20, in Phoebe Hearst Hall at Oglethorpe University. Latin music by Cucho Garcia of San Juan Jam, Cuban food and a signed copy of the book are included in the $40 ticket price. Tickets may be purchased at www.acappellabooks.com.

In 1989 Oscar Hijuelos published “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,” a novel about two Cuban musician brothers knocking around mid-century New York, which became a literary sensation. It won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, was turned into a movie starring Antonio Banderas and was briefly reincarnated in 2005 as a musical.

Hijuelos’ brilliant stroke was connecting the fictional Castillo brothers, profligate Cesar and mournful Nestor, to American pop culture by casting them in an episode of “I Love Lucy” as Ricky Ricardo’s performing cousins from Havana. Perhaps it was this quirk that pulled U.S. readers into the story — it opens with the nephew of a drunken older Cesar dragging his uncle to the TV to watch a rerun of the show. Or perhaps it was just the beauty of Hijuelos’ writing about two ruined men who had lived for romance.

“Mambo Kings” brought unprecedented attention to Latino writers in America. Like the Castillo brothers, who become known for one hit song, “Beautiful Maria of My Soul,” Hijuelos has not produced another novel with the impact of “Mambo Kings.” But he has just published an exquisite memoir, “Thoughts Without Cigarettes,” one of the loveliest, most wistful books about growing up that I’ve read.

If there’s such a thing as a gritty elegy, Hijuelos, born in New York City in 1951 to Cuban immigrant parents, has written it. He describes the circumstances of his upbringing in a tough neighborhood on the fringes of Harlem as sad, harsh and bitter, though not devoid of familial love. His mother’s tempestuous personality bristles and cries out on the page along with the clamor of his parents’ marriage, an interminable war waged by the angry, frustrated mother, who came from a once-genteel family in Cuba.

Hijuelos’ father Pascual, a farmer’s son, labors as a cook at a fancy Midtown hotel. Hijuelos vividly recalls how Pascual literally smells of blood and sweat when he comes home, packing slabs of meat on his body, gotten cheaply from the hotel kitchen. This man, whose early death leaves the teenage Hijuelos pining after him — and later the young writer struggling to resurrect him in his stories — is remembered in the gentlest terms. But Hijuelos doesn’t flinch from describing his father’s final, terrible slide. A quiet, patient, sometimes melancholy figure, Pascual is also given to carousing with friends, both tendencies that drive him to the bottle until he becomes a falling-down drunk, not unlike the once-dashing Cesar Castillo of “Mambo Kings.”

The other great loss that defines him, Hijuelos suggests, is the break with his Cuban identity that occurred very specifically when he was four years old. He fell ill with a kidney infection during his first trip to Cuba and, upon returning home, was sent away to convalesce at a children’s hospital in Greenwich, Connecticut. It was a long year that robbed him of the Spanish language, a vital link to his family culture that his parents, lacking skills themselves, did not know how to help him restore. “Me entiendes?” — “Do you understand me?” — he recalls his mother continually asking him throughout his childhood, “as if her own son had become a stranger who’d suddenly dropped into her life….”

Despite the sorrowful years Hijuelos endured as a sickly child, overprotected and also apparently resented by his mother for the strain his illness caused, he re-creates the early voyage to his parents’ homeland as a beautiful, almost magical experience. When the smoke from an outdoor cooking fire disturbed nesting tarantulas in a tree, Hijuelos remembers, “a rainfall of those creatures came dropping down by the dozens, like black flowers, and began scattering wildly in all directions in the yard.”

The decades beyond childhood offer an intriguing snapshot of a now-faded New York, when Hijuelos, a bohemian type, dabbles in music and studies writing at City College of New York with some of the most distinguished writers of the 1970s, such as Susan Sontag and Donald Barthelme. But these recollections lack the emotional resonance of his stories of family, as if nothing could ever touch him as deeply. Hjuelos’ first marriage, to a young actress named Carol, ends disastrously, but we are given no picture of Carol, shown not a single aspect of her personality, except her final cruel act.

Oscar Hijuelos (Photo by Dario Acosta)

Although we know that Hijuelos will eventually become the celebrated author of “The Mambo Kings,” with whose glories this memoir closes, it seems unlikely all along, even after he publishes a (largely unnoticed) first novel, because we have become convinced, as Hijuelos tells us he was, that he cannot escape the failure and fatalism of his father.

I recently spoke with Hijuelos by phone as he made a pit stop on a whirlwind book tour, covering 17 cities in three weeks.  Hijuelos, whose voice is the heavy instrument of the native New Yorker, has been on a roll recently; “Thoughts Without Cigarettes” is his third book to appear in four years.  Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation.

Parul Kapur Hinzen: What prompted you to write this memoir at this point in your life?

Oscar Hijuelos: Well, uh, it’s a long story. [Laughter.] I’m best known for my novel “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.” Because of that, a lot of people don’t know my first novel, “Our House,” in which in a fictional kind of way I try to present a lot of the [family] issues one finds in “Thoughts Without Cigarettes.” Also, I was really reflecting on a past that was sort of slipping away slowly. I mean it’s hard to remember some things. So I just got it down as much as I could.

Hinzen: You confide at one point that whatever you wrote as a young man, however veiled, “in some mystical way, led back to my pop.” Is that still true for you decades later? Are you still trying to recover your father through your writing?

Hijuelos: That’s an interesting question because, yeah, I still often think about him when I write. You know my mother passed away about five years ago. But I don’t know if it was a function of age with my father — I was 17 when he passed away. I rarely go through a day when I don’t think about one or the other of them. When I’m writing I often feel accompanied by some aspect of their personalities. It’s hard to explain — they provide a frame of reference for me. Also, it sort of warms my heart a little bit, even though some of the things I tend to write about are hard. In my writing, whether I’m writing directly about them [or not], it’s like an unconscious way, a subconscious way, of communing with their spirits perhaps.

Hinzen: In “Thoughts” you also describe how, when you wrote about your father earlier, all the mental anguish you felt looking back on the painful parts of your childhood or on his life became physical — your skin broke out in welts, you got terrible eczema. Has time healed all that? Or is writing still a painful process for you?

Hijuelos: I do get anxious. I think the thing about cigarettes is that they come in and out of my life with anxiety, I guess. I’m not as bad as I used to be. Well, let me just put it this way: the symptoms change. I used to get skin stuff all the time. And now when I’m feeling particularly emotional or overwrought — you know, I played tennis for a long time — I’ll get this bum foot suddenly. Today, this morning, it was my right hand. I slept on it in a funny way, so it’s kind of sore. So it’s moved from the skin into the muscle. But it’s nothing that a few drinks won’t fix up. [Laughs.]

I mean I still approach the material in an intensely emotional-slash-physical way. One plays on the other. On the other hand, I don’t suffer the way I used to. My God, I used to really break out. In a way, I felt so guilty resurrecting the dead. And that’s something really hard to get over until you realize that it’s a good thing. When I wrote my first novel, I remembered qualities and events that I would have forgotten by now. Frankly speaking, when I was writing “Thoughts,” I’d look at my novel to provoke some more memories. It reminded me of the frame of mind I had to grow up with, and that was helpful.

It’s funny, you know, I was speaking to a Cuban woman, an older woman, whose husband passed away a few years ago. I asked her if she believed in spirits: “Do you think that someone survives?” and all that. I thought she might. But she said, “No, only in memory.” That was her opinion. I’m not sure if that’s true. But the beauty of being a writer is that you can take those memories that will be gone when you’re gone and make them permanent. Literature lasts, hopefully, for a long time. You know, it’s very funny, my father passed away over 40 years ago and the fact is, when I see him in my books, or in this book in particular, I still feel that he’s around. Maybe it’s an illusion, but it’s one that I enjoy.

Hinzen: Nostalgia seems to run very deep in you and your characters, especially the Castillo brothers in “Mambo Kings.” You’re able to create it so well on the page. In “Thoughts” you talk about what you learned from your mentor, Donald Barthelme, which is to be careful of false sentiments.

Hijuelos: The thing about Barthelme was that he was a funny writer and he was a non-emotional writer. He had some issues with autobiography and expressing personal feelings. He was an opinion guy with a wicked sense of humor, whereas I come along with a touchy-feely, very down-to-earth take on things. I’m not considered a post-modernist novelist [like Barthelme], but “Mambo Kings” is very post-modernist in structure, in the way it moves, in its conception. It’s basically a collage novel. It’s a book I think Barthelme would have liked, because it has very raw emotions, but it also has a lot of, I think, nice language.

I think I have a great respect for words from being around people like him and Susan Sontag…. I think “Thoughts Without Cigarettes” is very straightforward. I hate pretentious writing. You can call my work crazy or awkward or sometimes overblown, but I think my voice remains straightforward, which I enjoy, and is also rather unique to me. Voice is something that [Barthelme] was very interested in. One thing he knew about my work is that I always had my own quirky way of looking at things.

You mentioned nostalgia. I feel the tug of the past as a good thing. You have to remember I was raised Catholic.… You’re raised in the mind-set that someone who lived 2,000 years ago is present in your life. I don’t see a big divide in time between now and then, nor do I see a big divide in time between, say, my father’s life and my own. So it’s a nostalgia — for what? I don’t know. For the people themselves. You wish you could always bring someone back.

Hinzen: You characterize yourself as being an underachiever for a long time. Barthelme offered you amazing opportunities such as trying to get you into the Iowa writers’ program or later a position for you at The New Yorker. You didn’t feel comfortable accepting them. Yet, on the other hand, you weren’t just Barthelme’s student, you were friends. You had a way of cultivating people. You dedicate your book to the people who looked out for you. What made people watch out for you?

Hijuelos: Well, there are a lot of people who did not look out for me. Ironically enough, as “whitey” as I could be — I hate to put it that way — the University of Iowa seemed so … I don’t know. I knew even back then it was a wonderful school, but I couldn’t make that break with what I surrounded myself with in terms of comfort zones — being near my family and New York City and all that. I also had a bias growing up in New York. I’ve met a lot of people who went to the University of Iowa and I’m glad I didn’t, actually. [Laughs.]

I’ll tell you a story. My brother is a painter and he used to work for a very famous artist of the time in the Abstract Expressionist [movement] named Al Held, who in his day was highly, highly regarded. I worked for him as well when I was about 17. I used to go to his house up in Woodstock, New York, and spend a weekend cleaning out his barn, stupid stuff like that. When I’d go into his house, he had some of his drawings up and I’d ask him about his drawings. “How did you do that?” and “What were you thinking?” He said to me, “You know, I appreciate your asking those questions, because I’m so famous that no one ever thinks to ask me those things now.” And I never forgot that. So when I’d meet a writer or someone I respected, I’d just say, “So, what are you working on?” On the other hand I felt like an outsider. I sort of drifted in and out of that world.

Hinzen: When you met Gabriel Garcia Marquez after becoming a publishing sensation, you write that he told you he wished he’d written “Mambo Kings.” Which is a book you wish you’d written?

Hijuelos: A book I wish I had written? Holy cow! I guess it must be [Marquez’s] “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” [Laughs.] I don’t know. I love Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.” Oh, you know what’s a book I wish I’d written? It actually had an influence on “Mambo Kings” — “The Adventures of Gargantua and Pantagruel” by Rabelais. To be inside that guy’s head must have been a trip. When I pick up a book, I don’t even care if it’s perfect if the mind is really interesting behind it. So occasionally I say, “Damn, that’s a great book.”

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