“The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love” (1989) / Oscar Hijuelos / 5.15.15

1 Aug

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Oscar HijuelosI struggled against sleep last night in an attempt to finish this book before my slumber, but failed. I knocked out the final 20 pages this morning over cereal and coffee.

It’s about two brothers, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, born in pre-revolution Cuba who come to New York City during the heyday of the mambo music scene in the 1940s. They form an orchestra and rise to fairly significant fame. The elder brother, Cesar, the bandleader, is a fierce and wild force, both musically and sexually. The younger, Nestor, is more timid and reads as the less morally repugnant of the two. Without spoiling anything, the story tracks the arcing tale of not only their entire lives, but the subplots therein, the ups and downs of their musical careers, their myriad relationships with women, their marriages and fatherhoods.

I tore through it in four days, so it’s not as if I didn’t enjoy it, but I will say that it won’t end up on my list of favorites. It is a remarkable book, insofar as Hijuelos paints a gorgeous and rambunctious picture of the times—the music, sex, and drinking in the music clubs of New York in the years following WWII—but I found there to be lacking a strong narrative that flows from beginning to end. There’s a lot of bouncing around, and some of the segues are sudden. I often found myself having to stop and flip back a bit just to figure out when in time I was.

Oscar HijuelosThis novel did, however, win the Pulitzer in 1990, and it was a finalist for the 1989 National Book Award, along with Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, so it’s much decorated and keeps good company.

Though many reviews of the book will speak to its examination of the immigrant experience—and it is about that to a great extent—it’s fundamentally a novel about brotherhood and the long arc of life. And, for me, therein lies its real strength. It speaks to the love and friendship between brothers, and what happens to this relationship as men age. If you have a brother, as I do, this novel will perhaps take on some special meaning for you, as it did for me.

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