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Oscar Hijuelos has enchanted readers with vibrant characters who hunger for success, love, and self-acceptance. In his first work of nonfiction, Hijuelos writes from the heart about the people and places that inspired his international bestselling novels.
Born in Manhattan's Morningside Heights to Cuban immigrants in 1951, Hijuelos introduces readers to the colorful circumstances of his upbringing. The son of a Cuban hotel worker and exuberant poetry- writing mother, his story, played out against the backdrop of an often prejudiced working-class neighborhood, takes on an even richer dimension when his relationship to his family and culture changes forever. During a sojourn in pre-Castro Cuba with his mother, he catches a disease that sends him into a Dickensian home for terminally ill children. The yearlong stay estranges him from the very language and people he had so loved.
With a cast of characters whose stories are both funny and tragic, Thoughts Without Cigarettes follows Hijuelos's subsequent quest for his true identity into adulthood, through college and beyond-a mystery whose resolution he eventually discovers hidden away in the trappings of his fiction, and which finds its most glorious expression in his best-known book, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. Illuminating the most dazzling scenes from his novels, Thoughts Without Cigarettes reveals the true stories and indelible memories that shaped a literary genius.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2011-05-02
- Reviewer: Staff
A modest yet inspired look back at his Manhattan upbringing by Cuban immigrants takes Pulitzer Prize–winning Hijuelos from the early 1950s through the extraordinary success of his second novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. Hijuelos's memoir, at times verbose, is very much a tender tribute to his parents. A campesino who immigrated to New York City in the early 1940s and worked as a short-order cook at the Biltmore Men's Bar, his "pop" was a largehearted man who loved to entertain his Cuban friends and eat and drink heartily; his voluble, anxious mother, from an upper-middle-class Cuban family, accompanied her new husband to America and remained fairly isolated in their Morningside Heights apartment, without English or job prospects, growing increasingly disgruntled by her husband's big-spending, lady-killing ways. The defining event of Hijuelos's childhood was his contracting deadly nephritis at age four while on a trip home to Cuba with his mother. Not only was he hospitalized for nearly a year and put on a strict diet for most of his childhood, but the illness, termed his "Cuban disease," also caused a rupture from his maternal language and his sense of being Cuban. Gradually he educated himself at City College, winning enthusiastic mentors like Donald Barthelme and Frederic Tuten, and transforming this awkward, rudderless "work in progress" into a gracious writer of well-deserved stature. (June)
From Morningside Heights to 'The Mambo Kings'
Oscar Hijuelos ends his appealing memoir Thoughts Without Cigarettes in 1990, shortly after he won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his second novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. That Hijuelos was the first Latino to win the fiction prize (and only one of two Latino writers to date who have won) made him “feel both proud and, at the same time, oddly singled out for the wrong reason.” And, in light of this memoir, the fact that he was the first is, in the same instant, more strange and more appropriate than he lets on.
In fact, Hijuelos spent much of his young life constructing an Americano identity. Born in upper Manhattan in 1951 to Cuban parents who had immigrated to New York years before the Castro revolution, Hijuelos was a sickly and overly protected child. Following a trip to Cuba when he was four years old, he developed kidney disease and spent a year away from his family in the hospital, losing forever his fluency in Spanish, the only language his mother spoke. Not only that, he and his brother were fair-haired and fair-skinned, leading the pensive child to wonder what about him was Cuban.
Yet after years of confusion and drift, Hijuelos—an accidental writer if ever there was one—found a world open to him with the discovery of Latin American writers. “For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel particularly ashamed of how and what I had come from and, thinking about my father and mother, began to conceive that perhaps, one day, I would be able to write something about them, and without the fear and shame that always entered me,” he writes.
The discovery of a possible identity as a writer who mines his experiences as a Cuban American is more spiritual and cultural than political. Although Hijuelos writes briefly and sharply here about how Latino writers are too often ignored, Thoughts Without Cigarettes is in the main a very personal, often moving, sometimes quite humorous account of his grappling with his divided self. Hijuelos shows flashes of anger at people—writers especially—who have humiliated him. But the spirit of the book is generous. He expresses deep gratitude to writers Donald Barthelme, Susan Sontag and Frederic Tuten, who helped with his fledgling efforts at fiction. And the book brims with a complicated love for the Morningside Heights neighborhood where he grew up and for the difficult and flawed parents who raised him.