Thoughts Without Cigarettes

Oscar Hijuelos wrote his memoir with such honesty and openness that I could not help but relate to it with a profound connection. Me? A woman from the Midwest who has spent twenty-six years teaching elementary children? How could I possibly find a connection to this Cuban writer who was the first Hispanic to win the Pulitzer prize?

It is because of these things: his growing up being protected by his parents; his being separate from the ‘young toughs’ on the street; his lack of inner confidence at his own skills; his feeling he didn’t quite belong; his yearning for a relationship with his parents. (I cannot relate to yearning for such a relationship, as I have one with my parents. What strikes me is the longing he felt for his father, especially after his father’s death.)

When he was four or five years old, Oscar became deathly ill with nephritis. During his long hospitalization, he lost his ability to speak Spanish, and in so doing became alienated from his mother who felt that perhaps he was not speaking it with her on purpose. Cossetted and perhaps overprotected by her, combined with his pale complexion and light hair, he felt separated from his Cuban roots, too. A stranger in this land…how many of us feel that way no matter what our background?

His story tells of his parent’s relationship (perhaps the fighting is glossed over by one of them when the other spouse dies), his great affection for his Aunt Cheo in Cuba, the distress his mother felt over her sister-in-laws not accepting her. He tells of the neighborhood, the drugs and sex that were such an integral part of the 1960s, and the demise of many of the young men he grew up with.

It seems rather a miracle that his writing became so famous. This, from a boy who “lived in dread of being called on (in school), and lacking self-confidence, I always felt that I had to play catch-up when it came to reading and writing, over which I agonized, all the while thinking that I wasn’t very smart.”

He goes on to tell of his years at CCNY, where Donald Bethalme was instrumental in advising and encouraging him to become a writer. Refusing to attend the University of Iowa’s writing program, Oscar nevertheless broke into the writer’s world, and ended up publishing first Our House In The Last World and then Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. (Of course, he has written many more, but this book stops with Mambo Kings.)

I loved his perceptions on other authors, particularly John Irving (an author I’m eager to read more of since learning that Haruki Murakami greatly admires him): “The biggest rising star and resident sex symbol? John Irving, dressed in leather and riding around on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. At a reading he, handsome and Byronesque, held forth with the seriousness of a lama about to raise the dead: his prose electrified the audience; women sighed at the sight of him, as if he were a Sir Galahad in the flesh.”

About Raymond Carver: “Where his (Bethelme’s) experimental fictions had once been considered timely, relevant, brilliant, and cutting-edge, he had been most recently eclipsed by Raymond Carver, whose surgically precise but often maudlin prose had become the new standard of excellence. (And all the more so after the poor man, a reformed alcoholic who often wrote of those trials so transcendentally, died of cancer in 1988.)”

But, if anyone writes transcendentally, it must be Oscar Hijuelos himself who writes of his life, and being Cuban, with an eloquence which makes even non-Hispanics like myself say, “Yeah! I know just what that’s like!” For it is the irony of experiencing what it’s like to be on the outside of the group, even temporarily, that makes us feel on the inside with one another.

Now I am finally ready to open, and appreciate all the more, my edition of his Pulitzer prize winning novel.

“Once I figured out that my humble super had been a mambo king, or the Mambo King, as he would become known in the novel, I still saw him in terms of a contradictory personality: on the one hand he was rambunctious, wild, life loving, woman chasing, devil-may-care, blatantly sexist, big dicked, and altogether, even when long past his prime, herculean in very way possible (or to put it differently, a man of the earth and of a triumphant body, until his vies get the better of him.) At the same time, because I’d always identified that feeling with being Cuban, he had a tendency toward melancholy and so many soulful memories that he seemed to be two “selves,” as it were. That dichotomy puzzled me, until one day I realized that Cesar Castillo was, in fact, two persons: Hence his younger brother, Nestor, came into the world, or, as I thought of him, he had always been there, lingering inside Cesar Castillo’s head.”

The publisher is offering a copy of the book as a giveaway to one reader (US/Canada only, please).  Simply leave a comment if you wish to be entered.

The winner of Oscar Hijuelos’ memoir is A Bookish Way of  Life…congratulations, Nadia! Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!