Book review: ‘Thoughts without Cigarettes’ by Oscar Hijuelos

The ‘Mambo Kings’ Pulitzer winner draws us in to his world as he revisits his New York childhood filled with eclectic characters and his later literary blossoming, writes Hector Tobar in this review for the Los Angeles Times.

When Oscar returns to West Harlem, he’s placed on a strict diet. His peculiar torture is to live for years in an apartment replete with the aroma of fried plantains and spicy pork, while being forbidden to taste any of these Cuban delicacies.
Eventually, young Oscar escapes the attentions of his mother and turns West Harlem into his playground. His description of that community makes for exquisite reading, with everything from LSD to comic books to Puerto Rican conjunto musicians thrown in.

Sadly, a big chunk of the neighborhood is torn down in the mid-1960s to make way for an expansion of Columbia University. And Hijuelos himself is cast adrift after his father, a lifelong heavy drinker, dies suddenly. Years later, Hijuelos first finds writerly inspiration from a playwright who knew a thing or two about the bottle — Tennessee Williams.
He signs up for a writing class at City College. A single walk down the hallway at that school reveals the heady terrain he’s entered, though Hijuelos is too callow to appreciate it then.
On his way to look for his first teacher — Donald Barthelme, the short-story writer — he walks past the offices of three professors: Joseph Heller, William S. Burroughs and Francine du Plessix Gray.
Under Barthelme’s tutelage, Hijuelos begins to blossom. Eventually, he thinks about writing a novel, a long shot for any writer — and even more so for a young Latino in the 1970s.
“[I]t was a very rare thing to see published work by any members of that primitive tribe from our urban jungles known as los Latinos,” Hijuelos writes. “I thought it would be years before I could write anything worthwhile. Even then, who out there would publish it?”
The book he writes, “Our House in the Last World,” sells modestly but gets a strong review in the New York Times.
With that, Hijuelos has one foot tenuously in the door. He wins a fellowship in Rome, where he plugs away at snippets of a tale drawing on the lives of the Cuban musicians that circled in his West Harlem orbit.
Scrambling together his fragments, he sells “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love” to legendary editor Jonathan Galassi at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. That disciplined, elegant novel will help bring the modern Latino experience into the mainstream of American letters.
“Mambo Kings” is a commercial and critical hit. But nothing prepares Hijuelos for the phone call he receives from FSG publisher Roger Straus after his whirlwind book tour is over.
“My boy, you’ve done it… You’ve won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.”
Moments later, Hijuelos has a vision that closes the circle of his family story and which provides a deeply moving capstone to his memoir.
In the years since “Mambo Kings,” the American literary landscape has changed dramatically.
Spanish has flooded American speech, flowing freely and without boundaries in books by Latino writers. And in “Thoughts Without Cigarettes” Hijuelos can seem almost quaint as he provides instant translation to such basic Spanish phrases as “Me entiendes?”
But that’s the smallest of quibbles. “Thoughts Without Cigarettes” is a wonderfully intimate epic and also an essential document of the evolution of American literature. It tells the story of an American neighborhood and of the young man who was born there, who looked inside himself and found books waiting to be written.
For the original report go to http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/books/la-ca-oscar-hijuelos-20110731,0,7184944.story?page=1

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