R.I.P. Oscar Hijuelos

October 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

And who should come by when his date gets up to use the ladies’ room but that brunette, and even if she’s not a blonde, she looks seriously fly in a tight pink dress and bops toward him with a drink in her hand, and Dios mío, but she looks hot from dancing, with beads of sweat rolling off her chin, and onto her breasts, her stomach damp and transparent through the clingy material of her dress. And what does she say but, “Aren’t you Cesar Castillo, the singer?” And he nods and takes hold of her wrist and says, “My, but you smell nice,” and he gets her name, cracks her up with a joke, and then, before his date returns, he says, “Why don’t you come back here tomorrow night and we can talk some more and have a little fun”…

–Oscar Hijuelos (1951-2013), The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love

Bruce Weber’s obituary of Hijuelos, in the New York Times, praises the writer for chronicling the “conundrums of assmiliation,” and says, “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.”

In the parts of Mambo Kings I have read, Hijuelos shows a distinctive ear for the American babble, the arrogant forward press of youth, and the critical weight of pop culture (e.g., I Love Lucy) and fame as yardsticks of achievement.  You can see his influence in Junot Diaz, among others. I’m also seeing hints of Dorothy Baker, and even though I don’t think she wrote about the U.S. much, Jean Rhys (e.g., Voyage in the Dark).

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