THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

This Cuban-American boy’s life

Born of immigrants who swapped a middle-class life for one in Harlem, Hijuelos charts his path through cultural and class duality to become writer

(Alexis Rom for The Boston Globe)
By Richard Eder
Globe Correspondent / June 12, 2011

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Like God in the proverb, Oscar Hijuelos writes straight with crooked lines. His memoir of confused identity between his Cuban heritage and the tough world of the streets outside his family’s New York tenement is awkwardly worded and organized, and at times plain ungrammatical. Even the occasional Spanish phrase makes a mistake or two. Yet what comes through is complex and moving. Its very roughness is that of a real voice and troubled presence.

Hijuelos, winner of the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for his novel “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,’’ comes from a family that in Cuba was comfortably middle class. His father, Pascual, was the playboy son of an enterprising farmer in Oriente province; Magdalena, his mother, the indulged daughter of a wealthy and cultivated businessman who died suddenly after losing his money to a swindle by the brutal 1930s dictator, Gerardo Machado.

Migrating to New York was a precipitous fall; their cramped apartment standing on the edge of Harlem, their income dependent upon Pascual’s job as a short-order cook at the Biltmore Hotel. It was low-paying if steady, and eased somewhat by the hefty steaks and other fancy food he tucked under his shirt and brought home. “Upper-class poor’’ was the wry label that Oscar’s older brother, Jose, devised for the precarious frontier between past privilege and present struggle.

It was a frontier that ran through the family, as well. Pascual, sunny, sociable, and hard-working, showed no regrets for what had been lost. Jose unhesitantly met the tough challenges of growing up on the streets, while developing a talent for art that eventually landed him a secure place as a public school teacher. Magdalena, on the other hand, despite her native spark and wit, took refuge in a cocoon; nostalgic, fearful, and refusing to learn all but the most rudimentary English.

Little Oscar was caught between cocoon and street; and for a special reason. At 4 he contracted nephritis; for the next six months he was confined to a convalescent facility where he all but lost his Spanish and spoke only English. His mother’s regular visits were a series of lamentations in Spanish; for him, in part, but mostly for herself. She “never really spoke,’’ he writes, “to me . . . but . . . at me.’’

When he came home she made him her full-time project; drawing him into the cocoon, monitoring every step he took, every bite he ate — bland boiled stuff; none of his father’s oniony steaks — and drumming in the message he was a plague-zone of microbes that would come to lethal life with any exposure to the outside world.

In one sense, Magdalena’s effort failed; it was not long before Oscar was out on the street, playing and fighting with the other kids, going to school, and living a stormy adolescence, a picaresque young manhood, and struggling to become a writer.

In another sense, though, it marked him. Nothing he did outside seemed quite real, while to reject his mother’s suffocating protectiveness seemed a rejection of his Cuban identity.

His account of his New York life is real enough. Street fights as a boy, a spell in a disciplined Catholic high school, and then in a violent and chaotic public school. Finding refuge in music, he takes up the guitar, plays in bars, moves in a circle of free-spirited and free-basing pop groups, though pretty much avoiding drugs himself (his mother’s microbe obsession surfacing). He takes writing courses at City College with its starry teaching corps: Joseph Heller, Donald Barthelme, Susan Sontag, William Burroughs, and others; Barthelme becomes his particular mentor and friend. Briefly married, Oscar works for nine years at an advertising agency.

Always double, though. Cuba nags him from the cocoon; he rejects it, then hesitantly lets it inspire an early autobiographical novel published by a small press. A critical success, it wins him the American Academy’s Rome Prize. And in Rome, with its beauty, its sun, its allure, the light changes. It blasts a way through his divisive hang-ups; he finds himself uninhibitedly at work on “Mambo Kings,’’ bringing together Cuba, New York, and his riven self. “It was as if Rome had become my Havana.’’

Not entirely, though. The subsequent celebrity, the honors, the money seem to belong to someone else. “I was no budding Jay McInerney, a novelist famed for zestfully embracing the bounties of his success.’’ It could seem like posturing except that the story of Hijuelos’s split sensibility has rung so painfully true, if rough, that this concluding painfulness is utterly of a piece with all that has gone before.

Richard Eder, who writes reviews for numerous publications, can be reached at ederculloch@gmail.com.

THOUGHTS WITHOUT CIGARETTES: A Memoir
By Oscar Hijuelos
Gotham, 367 pp., $27.50