'Mambo Kings' author reinvents the past, again

March 14, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

NEW YORK — New York--"Ionce had this feeling of walking down a street in Manhattan on a very sunny day, and I was thinking that at any moment I could be looking at a street in ancient Rome, or I could be looking at a street in 1921," Oscar Hijuelos is saying. "The thing I have been thinking about lately is the past -- yesterday was the past, and so was 3,000 years ago. To me, they exist in the same space."

Oscar Hijuelos has this thing about the past. Not so much his past, though he's led a pretty eventful life, but the past in general. It is with him always.

For in his hands, the past is wet clay to be shaped according to his whims, his vision. He can look at an advertisement for women's soap in an old magazine and see . . . a novel.

That book is his just-published third novel, "The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien," which chronicles the lives of a Cuban-Irish immigrant family in a small town in southeastern Pennsylvania. It's a tour de force of the imagination: A 41-year-old single male writer from New York City wresting from his subconscious a rich evocation of a family of young women coming of age in turn-of-the-century rural America.

But then, Mr. Hijuelos has done this sort of thing before. His last novel, the steamy, sensuous "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," told the story of two Cuban musician brothers who found success and heartbreak when they moved to New York after World War II. Mr. Hijuelos, who grew up in New York in a Cuban-American family, turned to friends, family members and musicians for research and period details, but in the end it was his fertile imagination that transformed "Mambo Kings" into a pulsating, astonishingly vivid depiction of Cuban-American life in the 1950s. It was the publishing sensation of 1989 and won the Pulitzer Prize the following year.

The book was so powerful that it even moved Mr. Hijuelos' publisher -- Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which is respected as a "literary" house -- to promote it with unusual vigor: "Mambo Kings" towels and book bags at the 1989 American Booksellers Association convention, for instance.

"I don't think there was at the time -- and since has been -- any book like it in bringing alive a moment and a group in American culture that hadn't been written about," says Jonathan Galassi, his editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. "The book has tremendous passion and is very moving, and is very artfully constructed. But it's not often that we get behind a book like that."

The past, then, has been good to Oscar Hijuelos, and he knows it. Balding, of medium height and edging toward chunky, he's a very pleasant sort, open and friendly. After a few minutes of conversation, one hears a nervous edge in his speech -- he

sometimes rambles or jumps from one story to another without )) finishing a sentence. And he has this wonderful New York style of talking ironically, rapid-fire, about serious stuff. Would getting married affect his writing? Should he move out of New York, since city life is getting on his nerves?

Close to patter

At times it's close to patter. Talking about his Upper West Side neighborhood, which he once called in an interview "Crack City": "Around here, you don't walk fast or run on the street. Somebody might think you're an undercover cop. I made that mistake one time, and some guy pulled a gun on me."

But now, as Mr. Hijuelos has lunch in a restaurant not far from his apartment, he's wishing he could leave some of it behind -- specifically a few trappings that have come with "Mambo Kings."

"I just want to be a normal guy -- not a celebrity, not solely thought of as a Latino writer or Cuban-American spokesman," he says while considering the huge, retro cheeseburger in front of him. "It's very hard to lead a normal life these days. When 'Mambo Kings' came out, I used to answer every letter, I felt so enchanted. I used to get letters after 'Our House in the Last World' [his 1983 first novel] came out, but they were few and far between.

"So if they wrote a two-page letter to me, I'd write a two-pager back. If they wrote me a letter of 100 words, I'd write them a letter of 100 words. Then I found myself not doing my own writing. I used to spend two to three hours a day answering mail."

Being known as a Hispanic writer, he concedes, has pluses and minuses.

"Some doors have been opened up for Hispanic writers since 'Mambo Kings,' and if that book had anything to do with it, I'm proud of it," he says. "And I'm glad to open up a world for a lot of people who may not have known about it. But at the same time, I'm very conscious of being pigeon-holed. . . .

"Obviously, I don't resent all that's gone on since 'Mambo Kings' -- I received far more attention and success for that book than I ever imagined I would," he says. "I mean, my first book sold a few thousand copies, got some nice reviews, and then disappeared. I know how tough it is to make it as a writer. I've been broke more than once."

Out from the shadows

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