Oscar Hijuelos is known primarily for his novel Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, with which he became the first Latino author to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. (It was later made into the film Mambo Kings, starring not-Cuban actors Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas.) Hijuelos came through Albuquerque in June. If you missed him, his new memoir will keep you company until he returns.
Hijuelos was born in New York City, the son of Cuban immigrants. He visited Cuba several times as a boy, and his writing often explores what it means to be Hispanic in America. Thoughts Without Cigarettes opens with Hijuelos languishing in a hospital ward as a child, suffering some dread disease he probably contracted while visiting Cuba. The illness is nearly fatal, and he loses his native Spanish to the English spoken by the doctors and nurses.
From there the memoir veers dangerously toward losing the reader as Hijuelos writes about long-dead relatives in Cuba, the land of his parents.
Such is the peril of the memoir: It’s difficult, if not impossible, to hook readers with list-like memories of ancestors. Only a hardcore fan will care about such excruciating detail. A more casual (or impatient) reader may tune out. In spite of the occasional lapse into tedious family history, overall Hijuelos paints a delightfully vivid account of his life. One cannot help but feel present during a raucous party in a New York apartment or eating machete-chopped chunks of mango in a Cuban bar.
Prior indictment of tedium notwithstanding, there are some moments of family lore that do fascinate. Granted, they’re usually sad. Uncle Oscar, Hijuelos’ namesake, falls off a horse and breaks his neck while on his way to New York. Grandpa is swindled out of the family fortune by a crooked politician.
The book’s most intriguing passages occur during visits to Cuba in the mid ’50s, whether it be vomiting into the darkness in the countryside after eating some bad vendor food, or hearing news accounts of a rebel leader named Fidel who is camped in the mountains (and we all know what happened with that).
Thoughts Without Cigarettes is peppered with Spanish of the colloquial Cuban/New Yorker variety. Hijuelos doesn’t always explain the meanings of the phrases, leaving the reader to infer. That’s better than being hit over the head with Spanish-then-translation: The vague, sudden linguistic switches play nicely off the vivid prose. His hard-partying, philandering father, his long suffering mother and the quarrels that ensue between the two conjure images of Angela’s Ashes, albeit less doom-laden. Hijuelos comes from a working-class/upper-class-fallen-on-hard-times background rather than the tuberculosis-soaked Irish lane of Frank McCourt. But drunk dads suck in any context.
When he’s confined to a hospital and transformed into an English speaker, Hijuelos comes across like a young Charles Bukowski in his largely autobiographical (and most tender work) Ham on Rye. The comparison is not absolute, but both men (and let us not forget about McCourt) seem to be informed somewhat by their childhood trauma—which they later parlayed it into literary riches. Whether it’s nephritis or facial scarring, writers love to bitch about their childhood. For some reason, it usually makes good reading, and Hijuelos delivers just that.