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Oscar Hijuelos, Cuban-American Writer
Who Won Pulitzer, Dies at 62

(1950-2013 )

13 October 2013.

Oscar Hijuelos, a Cuban-American novelist who wrote about the lives of immigrants adapting to a new culture and became the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his 1989 book, “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,” died on Saturday in Manhattan. He was 62.

Mr. Hijuelos collapsed on a tennis court and never regained consciousness, his wife, Lori Marie Carlson, said.

A New Yorker by birth, education and residence, Mr. Hijuelos (pronounced ee-HWAY-los) was said to have been more American-Cuban than Cuban-American.

In novels like Our House in the Last World (1983), which traces a family’s travails from Havana in 1939 to Spanish Harlem; “Mambo Kings,” about the rise and fall of the Castillo brothers, Cesar, a flamboyant and profligate bandleader, and his ruminative trumpeter brother, Nestor; and The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O'Brien (1993),  about several generations of a Cuban-Irish family in Pennsylvania, he wrote about the non-native experience in the United States from a sympathetic, occasionally amused perspective and with a keen eye for detail in his period settings.

Unlike that of many well-known Latin writers, his work was rarely outwardly political, focusing instead on the conundrums of assimilation. And rather than employing a syncopated musicality or fantastical flights of magic realism, Mr. Hijuelos wrote fluid prose, sonorous but more earthy than poetic, with a forthright American cadence.

“Everything was different back when; 125th Street was jumping with clubs, there was less violence, there were fewer beggars; more mutual respect between people,” he wrote, as Cesar Castillo reflected on his halcyon days.

“He could take a late-night stroll from the apartment on La Salle street, walk down Broadway, cut east on 110th Street to Central Park, and then walk along its twisting paths and across the little bridges over streams and rocks, enjoying the scent of the woods and nature’s beauty without a worry. He’d make his way to the Park Palace Ballroom at 3 Fifth Avenue, to hear Machito or Tito Puente, find musician friends at the bar, chase women, dance.

“You could walk through that park wearing your best clothes and a nice expensive watch without worrying about someone coming up behind you and pressing a knife against the back of your neck. Man, those days were gone forever.”

His characters were not necessarily new arrivals — in Mr. Hijuelos’s books, which sometimes ranged over decades, they certainly didn’t remain so — but in various stages of absorbing the sometimes assaultive American culture while holding on to an ethnic and national identity.

Cesar and Nestor and their band, the Mambo Kings, do achieve a brief period of celebrity, and at one point — the high point, in fact, of the brothers’ fame before it begins to flicker and fade — they appear on the television sitcom “I Love Lucy,” which starred Lucille Ball and her husband, the Cuban bandleader and actor Desi Arnaz.

“In the biography of a successful artist, the ‘I Love Lucy’ appearance would take on a kind of mythic quality: it would stand as one of those happily ironic moments signifying the hero’s own ascent toward the American dream,” Michiko Kakutani wrote in her review in The New York Times. “But in the case of the Castillo brothers, the “I Love Lucy” show provides no more than a momentary glimpse of success. Although it will be rerun endlessly on late-night television, it will remain just a bit of cherished family folklore, an anonymous (and dead-end) brush with fame.

“Indeed, Oscar Hijuelos’s remarkable new novel is another kind of American story — an immigrant story of lost opportunities and squandered hopes. While it dwells in bawdy detail on Cesar’s sexual escapades, while it portrays the musical world of the ’50s in bright, primary colors, the novel is essentially elegiac in tone — a Chekhovian lament for a life of missed connections and misplaced dreams.”

Oscar Jerome Hijuelos was born in Manhattan on Aug. 24, 1951, and grew up in the borough’s northern Morningside Heights neighborhood that later often figured in his books. His parents, Pascual, a cook at the Biltmore Hotel, and Magdalena Torrens Hijuelos, emigrated from Cuba in the 1940s.

The family spoke Spanish at home, and young Oscar became fluent in English only after a 1955 visit to Cuba, where he contracted a severe kidney infection that required him to spend a year away from his family in a Connecticut hospital.

“It was during that long separation from my family that I became estranged from the Spanish language and, therefore, my roots,” he wrote in a 2011 essay in The New York Times.

Mr. Hijuelos graduated from Louis D. Brandeis High School in Manhattan and attended several colleges in New York City, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree and a Master of Fine Arts from City College. “Our House in the Last World,” his first novel, was published in 1983.

Mr. Hijuelos’s first marriage ended in divorce. He met Ms. Carlson, a writer and editor, in 1983 at the Center for Inter-American Relations, where she was an executive. The organization, now known as the Americas Center, promotes diplomacy between the United States and Latin America. They struck up a friendship and she became a sounding board for him, listening as he read aloud the manuscript that became “Mambo Kings.”

“In 1989, he called one night and said he’d like to take me to dinner,” she recalled in a telephone interview Sunday. “He said, ‘Because my second novel is being published and I want to thank you.’” That was the beginning of a romance. They married in 1998. She teaches at Duke University, as did her husband. They have homes in Manhattan; Durham, N.C.; and Branford, Conn.

Mr. Hijuelos is also survived by a brother, José.

“The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love” was made into a 1992 movie (called simply The Mambo Kings) starring Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas as Cesar and Nestor Castillo. In 2005 a stage musical adaptation appeared in San Francisco but a planned Broadway opening was canceled.

Mr. Hijuelos’s later novels include “Mr. Ives’s Christmas” (1995) about a man whose life is in tatters after the murder of his son; “Empress of the Splendid Season” (1999), about a Cuban émigré, once the spoiled daughter of a well-to-do businessman who, in New York, has become a cleaning woman; “A Simple Habana Melody (From When the World was Good)” (2002), told the story of Israel Levis, a Cuban composer returning home in 1947 after years of living in Europe, including being imprisoned by the Nazis, who had thought he was a Jew; and “Beautiful Maria of My Soul,” (2010), in which he returns to a character from “Mambo Kings,” the woman who broke Nestor’s heart, filling in her life from the time she vanished from his.

He also wrote a young adult novel, “Dark Dude” (2008), about an introspective Cuban boy living in a tough Harlem neighborhood, and a memoir, “Thoughts Without Cigarettes” (2011).

“Despite the strange baggage that I carried about my upbringing,” Mr. Hijuelos wrote in The Times in 2011 about the evolution of his view of his cultural background, “and despite the relative loss of my first language, I eventually came to the point that, when I heard Spanish, I found my heart warming. And that was the moment when I began to look through another window, not out onto 118th Street, but into myself — through my writing, the process by which, for all my earlier alienation, I had finally returned home.”

Oscar Hijuelos, ‘Mambo Kings’ author, dies at 62 - The Washington Post

from The Washington Post

Oscar Hijuelos, ‘Mambo Kings’ author, dies at 62

By Matt Schudel, Monday, October 14, 6:39 PM

Oscar Hijuelos, who won the Pulitzer Prize with his best-selling 1989 novel “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,” about the sensuous world of Cuban musicians in mid-century New York, died Oct. 12 in Manhattan. He was 62.

He collapsed from a heart attack while playing tennis, his agent, Jennifer Lyons, told the Associated Press.

In 1990, the New York-born Mr. Hijuelos (pronounced ee-HWAY-lohss) became the first novelist with roots in Latin America to be awarded the Pulitzer. He often explored the uprooted lives of Cuban immigrants in his eight novels, but he resisted being aligned with any formal artistic movement and took no overt political stance on the thorny issue of relations with Cuba.

Instead, Mr. Hijuelos chose to build panoramic tales around the messy lives of his characters, with vivid depictions of romance and sorrow and the mood of the times. He had published one novel before “The Mambo Kings,” a sprawling account of the changing fortunes of two brothers, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, who left Cuba to lead a high-energy band during the mambo craze of the early 1950s.

“I wrote it to acquaint people with that world,” Mr. Hijuelos told the Boston Globe in 1990. “I wrote it as a long poem to musicians everywhere.”

A onetime guitarist, Mr. Hijuelos said he listened to mambo, an energetic style of Cuban dance music, while writing his novel.

“The music began taking over,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “I became fascinated by the lives of people who had this great talent, but then took different directions when they bumped into tougher realities here in America.”

The book became a literary phenomenon, translated into more than 30 languages, and was noteworthy for its steamy descriptions of seduction and the long, dance-filled nights when music and the possibilities of romance never seemed to end.

“By turns street-smart and lyrical, impassioned and reflective,” New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani wrote, “ ‘The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love’ is a rich and provocative book — a moving portrait of a man, his family, a community and a time.”

The book deliberately crossed the lines of fiction and fact, as the brothers in Mr. Hijuelos’s novel appeared alongside their hero, the Cuban-born bandleader Desi Arnaz, on “I Love Lucy.” In real life, a female musician sued Mr. Hijuelos for defamation, claiming an unsympathetic portrait in the book was based on her life. The suit was dismissed.

The novel was made into a 1992 movie, “The Mambo Kings,” starring Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas, but the film could not duplicate Mr. Hijuelos’s lush, musical prose style as he told a compelling story of human longing and failure.

“Wives were charmed by the flirtatious splendor that was Cesar Castillo,” he wrote. “He’d come down off the stage and dance with a dozen different women during a single song, his warm-blooded, thick hands taking the woman by the waist and spinning her like a falling flower . . . Cesar would sing about the murmuring seas, the mournful moons, scornful, mocking, deceptive, cool, playful, entrancing love. Eyes closed, his face a mask of thoughtful passion.”

Oscar Jerome Hijuelos was born on Aug. 24, 1951, to Cuban immigrants who came to New York in the 1940s. His father worked in New York hotels.

After a visit to Cuba when he was 4, the young Mr. Hijuelos became ill with nephritis, a kidney infection, and spent a year at a Connecticut rehabilitation hospital.

“I went in speaking Spanish,” he often said, “and came out speaking English.”

Although he spoke Spanish at home, he felt slightly removed from both cultures and withdrew into music and writing. He studied under writers Donald Barthelme and Susan Sontag at the City University of New York, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1975 and a master’s degree in creative writing in 1976.

From 1977 to 1984, Mr. Hijuelos worked in advertising while writing fiction at night. He published an autobiographical first novel, “Our House in the Last World,” in 1983. He received several fellowships in the 1980s and abandoned another novel before completing “The Mambo Kings” in 1989.

Many of his books had lyrical titles that were practically stories in themselves, including “The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien” (1993), about a family in early 20th-century Pennsylvania, with an Irish father and a Cuban mother; “Empress of the Splendid Season” (1999), describing the experiences of a Cuban-born house cleaner; “A Simple Habana Melody” (2002), a portrait of a Cuban composer returning to his homeland after suffering under the Nazis during World War II; and “Beautiful Maria of My Soul” (2010), which revisits the life of a female character from “The Mambo Kings.”

Mr. Hijuelos had been on the faculty of Duke University for the past six years and was at work on two new books.

Mr. Hijuelos had an early marriage that ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 15 years, Lori Carlson-Hijuelos, who teaches in the English department at Duke, and a brother.

In a 2011 memoir, “Thoughts Without Cigarettes,” Mr. Hijuelos wrote that the original title “The Mambo Kings” was “The Secrets of a Poor Man’s Life.”

A vivid image suddenly came to him, he wrote, as he tried to imagine the later life of one of his two main characters, Cesar Castillo — the suave lead singer of the fictional Mambo Kings.

“As I sat before my desk one day,” Mr. Hijuelos wrote, “I envisioned him coming out of a basement into a courtyard, singing in a wonderful baritone, but, at the same time, carrying in his arms an old record jacket on whose cover I first ‘saw’ — cross my heart — the rubric ‘The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.’ ”