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CUBAN RIFFS & Songs of Love : For Novelist Oscar Hijuelos, the Raw Sex and Swagger of 'Mambo Kings' Give Way to the Allure of the Feminine--and a New Case of Nerves

April 18, 1993|LYDIA CHAVEZ | Lydia Chavez's last piece for this magazine was "Los Yuppies," about yuppies in Mexico. She teaches at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley

It was the summer of 1987 and Oscar Hijuelos, a young, struggling writer, had been stuck in front of his word processor for days fiddling with the opening of his second novel. Money was short, the Internal Revenue Service was after him, and his mood was bleak. He picked up the first 50 pages and walked over to the apartment of Philip Graham, a fiction writer and friend from their days as graduate students at the City University of New York. * "He handed it to me," says Graham. "Then he sat across from me with a jug of wine and started to drink. He insisted on staying in the room, watching me read." Graham remembers getting lost in the text, forgetting the noise wafting up from 112th Street. "It was clear that it was very powerful, and when I told him so, he was incredibly relieved. He sent it to his agent and she sold it." "I often wonder," Graham says now, "if for some reason I hadn't liked it, how much longer he would have waited." * "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love," a raw riff of lust, sex and soulful music, won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and was nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Such accolades would elate most writers. But to Hijuelos, they only raised the stakes. Could he do it again? Nearly six years after his trip to Graham's apartment, the American-born son of Cuban immigrants has a new case of nerves. He's sweating the reception of "The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien," a novel he's come to view as a measure of his literary endurance. "I wanted to get another book out, to get beyond 'Mambo Kings,' " he says. "I needed a sense of accomplishment. I'm very aware that youth is passing, fleeting." * The 41-year-old writer appears to have little to worry about. Reviewing "Fourteen Sisters" in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called it "one of those commodious, emotionally generous books that immerse us in a well-upholstered fictional world." The reader finishes the novel, she writes, "reluctantly, the way one finishes a long letter from a beloved family member, eager for all the news not to end." Farrar, Straus & Giroux is running a first printing of 75,000 copies--the first printing for "Mambo Kings" was 30,000--and the bidding for paperback rights started at $400,000. * While "Mambo Kings" is infused with a masculine perspective of sex, "Fourteen Sisters" is bathed in the feminine. The allure of the Montez O'Brien household envelops men and then takes care of them as completely as a mother attends to a child. And while love in "Mambo Kings" goes unrequited, love for the characters in "Fourteen Sisters" is deliciously pleasant--even for the plump sister Irene, who lives for food and has one of the happiest marriages. As a girl, Hijuelos writes, Irene "daydreams about love, not so much for the sweet kisses and embraces of a man, or the roses that romance was said to bring, but for the boxes of dome-shaped, swirl-topped Belgian chocolates with maraschino-cherry centers." When she finds a like-minded man, their courtship consists of "long bouts of succulent, tongue-swallowing kisses, tongues tasting of sweets and nut breads."

If life for Hijuelos' characters has become less angst -ridden since "Mambo Kings," it remains difficult territory for their creator. No matter his fame--he is probably the country's most prominent Latino voice--he is always reminded of the differences between him and the literary stars who now embrace him.

As stocky and ruddy-faced as a longshoreman, Hijuelos sits in a townhouse off Fifth Avenue, chatting with George Plimpton. He's having a New York kind of day. He's just come from National Public Radio, where he was promoting "Fourteen Sisters," and he'll be heading next for a party thrown by Anteus, the literary magazine, where he'll hobnob with the likes of Gay Talese and Richard Price. And now, here's Plimpton, the arch-WASP of New York literati, interviewing Hijuelos. Except, that's not all Plimpton is doing. "I'm in this incredible place and George is walking around the apartment in his boxer shorts talking to Jackie Kennedy" on the phone, Hijuelos says later. "Amazing. He's known her since he was 15." He pauses. "Jackie," he says again and shakes his head.

Stranger than fiction, one could almost say. But for Hijuelos, whose characters rub shoulders with Noel Coward and Errol Flynn, fiction and fact are often one and the same. Like his characters, Hijuelos grew up in a neighborhood where many of the men, his father included, were drunks, and limousines pulled up at the door only for funerals. Anyone from that neighborhood who might have gone to Plimpton's townhouse would have used the service entrance. Hijuelos tries to explain the milieu of his youth: "We had the sense that we were looked down on." It was an environment bound to produce street-smart kids with giant chips on their shoulders, and Hijuelos was no exception. "Basically, the working class hates everyone else," he says.

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