Touched by Magic Writer unpegged: Oscar Hijuelos sees his works flowing one from another and won't participate in categorizing his subjects.

November 25, 1995|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Oscar Hijuelos is sitting on a small sofa in a restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel, nursing a cold, a glass of Chardonnay and thoughts of miracles.

Not the miracles of literary fame and achievement -- winning a Pulitzer Prize for his second novel, "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," praise for his subsequent books, or the $22 plate of steamed shrimp before him, which he has calculated comes out to $4.50 a shrimp. Mr. Hijuelos is not one who speaks lightly of miracles, or downgrades them to mere earthly pleasures.

"There's an old Buddhist parable about the way we confuse miracles with breaking physical laws," begins Mr. Hijuelos (pronounced ee-HWAY-los). A young priest asks an older one if he can walk on the water. The older priest replies: "Why would I want to do that when I can take a boat?"

Mr. Hijuelos breaks physical laws and creates a miracle or two in "Mr. Ives' Christmas," (HarperCollins, $23) the latest book from a writer who will never be satisfied with telling the same story in the same way.

After "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," published in 1989, readers yearned for more mambo. They would have been content, it seems, with "Mambo Kings Play More Songs of Love," or "Sons of Mambo Kings." Perhaps an interactive CD-ROM, in which one could manipulate the fates of Nestor and Delores.

But four years later, Mr. Hijuelos confounded expec

tations with the lush, less earthy, "The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien," set in rural Pennsylvania. How to explain it? Critics decided it was the "feminine companion" to the hyper-masculine "Mambo Kings."

Mr. Hijuelos is resigned to, but uninterested in, this need to categorize him and other artists. He sees one book flowing into the next, linked by gossamer threads -- the women in "Mambo Kings" led to the "Fourteen Sisters," while the Christmas scenes he imagined for that book, as well as its preoccupation with the afterlife, brought him to "Mr. Ives."

Mr. Ives is a foundling, the son of an orphan named for the second-half of Currier & Ives, the lithographers now best known as a slurred lyric in the unavoidable Christmas song "Sleigh Ride." ("It'll nearly be like a picture print from Currier & Ives./These wonderful things are the things we'll remember all through our lives!")

But in a season quick to capitalize on sentiment, "Mr. Ives' Christmas" is to most Christmas stories what an artificial tree is to a fresh-cut fir. "No warm, fuzzy false epiphany," Mr. Hijuelos says. "There is an element of darkness and pain, of darkness lurching toward the light."

The darkness comes with the murder of Mr. Ives' son, a would-be priest shot in a senseless street encounter the week before Christmas. The boy's mother and sister learn to accept the tragedy, but Mr. Ives thinks about his dead son every day.

He still could not get a certain image out of his head: his righteous and good son, stretched out on the sidewalk, eyes glazed and looking upward, suddenly aware and saddened that his physical life was ending.

The reader knows of the tragedy from the first few pages, then moves through the "before" portion of Mr. Ives' life -- his courtship of wife Annie, his friendship with the Cuban-born Ramirez, his work as an illustrator at an advertising agency. The language is matter-of-fact, yet suffused with the magic one expects in Mr. Hijuelos' work, the touches that bring the inevitable comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

An elevator breaks down, but instead of merely plummeting -- an experience Mr. Hijuelos once had himself -- it first rises rapidly, as if it might burst through the roof, then drops four or five floors and hangs, suspended.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Ives examines his religious beliefs as he hangs in the air alongside a secretary, Miss Feingold.

Whatever, in those moments, his faith seemed nothing more than a construct, that he had merely learned to mimic the spirit and mannerisms of his truly devout father, that deep down inside he was nothing more than a fake, an actor, a sense of worthlessness coming over his foundling soul . . . and though he did not feel this all the time, he regarded such feelings as one of his little secrets.

"Mr. Ives' Christmas" has received generally glowing reviews, although even some critics appear wistful for another "Mambo Kings." The Boston Globe noted: "It is an unobtrusive, lovely story, with an honesty at its core that seems almost shocking, in this day and age, in its steadfast guilelessness."

"I'm a hip, old-fashioned person, if that's possible," Mr. Hijuelos says, puzzling over the appeal of his work. "White-haired ladies, movie moguls -- something in my work seems to speak to a center in people."

Pigeonholed as a Latino writer after the success of "Mambo Kings," Mr. Hijuelos is a New Yorker above all, who happens to be the son of Cuban immigrants. His father was a cook. His mother was a homemaker. He writes in an apartment not far from his old West Side neighborhood, although he now lives downtown.

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