Oscar Hijuelos won the Pulitzer for this scattered but musical novel about
two brothers who move to the U.S. from Cuba in 1949, start a band together,
and make it to fame in 1955 with an appearance on the I Love Lucy show.
The novel follows the life stories of both Cesar and Nestor Castillo in a rollicking
style that echoes the mambo music they play in their band, Cesar Castillo
and the Mambo Kings. Like a musical composition, the book plays back and
forth among different themes—melancholy and joviality, religion and sex,
love and emptiness.
Though it’s deeply explored, you don’t have to know about Latin music
of the '40s and '50s to truly drink in this heady collection of words. But reading
this book does take an e
njoyment of strong passionate writing, the kind that
illumines not just characters and plot, but a culture, a style of music, and
an era. The kind of writing that takes effort to read, not because of weakness,
but because of its strength.
This book reminded me of another Pulitzer winner, The
Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay—both books are about immigrants
who moved to the U. S. during the 30s and 40s and made it big. Both books are
told in sweeping language. And—though I might get a bit suspicious of the
prize if I keep reading winners that have similar plots—both are definitely