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THE MAMBO KINGS PLAY SONGS OF LOVE by Oscar Hijuelos (Harper & Row: $9.95)

August 19, 1990|CHARLES SOLOMON

Oscar Hijuelos won the Pulitzer Prize for his second novel, a portrait of a small-time Cuban musician who enjoys a brief celebrity during the Latin-music craze of the early '50s. Moody and sensual, the book is steeped in nostalgia for the ballrooms and dance halls that formed the hub of Cuban expatriate life in postwar New York. Cesar Castillo enjoys being a musician, primarily for the opportunities it affords him to meet women; the music doesn't flow from his soul, as it does for his taciturn, melancholy brother Nestor. Cesar's life darkens after Nestor is killed in an accident; he loses the ability to trust anyone or anything, and his career founders in drink, food and fornication. Some of Hijuelos' recurring descriptions suggest the prose equivalent of refrains, but like the songs of the Mambo Kings, they go on a bit too long, and the reader tires of reading about greasy mountains of pork, plantains and yuca cooked with lemon, garlic, salt and oil; the veritable Frederick's catalogue of feminine undergarments; and enough "members" to populate a good-sized lodge. Hijuelos has written an notable book, but judicious editing would have made it a better one.

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