Book Review: Oscar Hijuelos' winner of the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love
Only his second book, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love made Hijuelos, in 1990, the first Hispanic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The title of the novel comes from the fictional LP featured in the book, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, and the novel, as well as employing the confounding gimmick of opening "in media res," is structured with an A side and a B side which, even more clearly in retrospect, has some nice metafictional qualities. (For more on that I think I’d need to visit a local brew pub and go a few rounds with any interested parties.)
The main thing I took away from Hijuelos’ story is that regrets are inevitable, which is, a bit oddly, comforting. Sometimes concrete things will be there to be pointed out as regretful. For example, in the novel, a failure to visit parents enough, a mistreatment of a spouse, a Communist revolution. Sometimes regrets will come in spite of the many good things life has given one (like a dollop of fame, admiring friends, continual gainful employment) and one may find oneself sitting in a ratty hotel wondering, “What if?”
The movie version of this book in 1992 starred a young Antonio Banderas. Young? He was 32. At the ripe old age of 38 (the same age as Hijuelos when he finished this novel) 32 seems young … at least significantly “younger.” (I do refer to myself as “middle-aged,” half-jokingly, but only half.) What regrets do I already have? What regrets am I incubating? Where does this road I’m traveling actually end up? Life, unlike novels, seems to only reveal answers to those sorts of questions at the end. We animates don’t have the luxury of “in media res” to aid in giving perspective to past choices and events and the groove we’re running in doesn’t allow room for an omniscient narrator describing to us where we’re at on the A side or B side. We just know that we’re playing till the end, whenever that is, and that being in the “middle of things”/in media res is less fancy than it sounds and wins almost none of us a significant literary prize. But then, listen to me being so desultory. At least, from within the groove we reside and have the chance to live in the present (much like the title of this novel I’m ostensibly reviewing) and make some music for a little while. I mean, if regrets are kind of inevitable anyway, we might as well enjoy the spin.
Craig B is a thirty-something lover of books, movies, and rock and roll whose grandmother still worries that he might not be eating enough. (Love you, Grandma!) He lives with his charming wife in the small town of Berne, IN (in sight of the clock tower) where he busies himself keeping the Roses of Sharon in check and training his chinchilla in the ancient arts of the Ninja. Craig’s current favorite book is Buddenbrooks
by Thomas Mann.