Reading the news that Oscar Hijuelos has died at the far too young age of 62 has left me feeling saddened and deeply melancholic, two emotions that were always at the core of his books, from his first novel, Our House in the Last World (1983) through his breakthrough work, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989) and on to both what I believe is his masterpiece, A Simple Habana Melody (from When the World Was Good), and his last published book, the memoir Thoughts without Cigarettes (2011). Mambo Kings and its equally moving sequel, Beautiful Maria of My Soul (2010) are both tales of grand passion found, lost, and mourned, but Habana Melody raises the melancholy bar still further. The story of Cuban composer Israel Levis is an agonizing mix of joy and sadness, creativity and repression. Torn between Old World propriety and sensual craving, Levis is too timid either to pursue young singer Rita Valledares, whom he loves passionately, or to act on his attraction to men. The pull and push between the joy and freedom he feels in his creative life and the sadness and lack of fulfillment that torment his personal life reverberate in his music. As in Mambo Kings, Hijuelos uses music to accentuate his characters’ moments of triumph, to mourn their losses, and to evoke their longing for a time “when the world was good.” That longing has never been put into words more eloquently than in Hijuelos’ work.
It’s probably no surprise that a writer obsessed with feelings of melancholy and their expression in music would also be fascinated with cities. Whether he is describing Levis enjoying drinks and cigars with his fellow musicians in the Campana Bar in Habana, or detailing how the immigrant Castillo brothers learn to navigate the streets of New York in Mambo Kings, or, especially, how, in Thoughts without Cigarettes, the young Oscar, a sickly child who spent much of his childhood in bed, discovers in those same Manhattan streets both escape and liberation, Hijuelos writes about the urban landscape with the same passion he hears in music. And the same melancholy, as characters watch their beloved cities change. In a Hijuelos novel, we experience setting not as background but as an extension of a character’s soul, a force inextricably entangled with every kind of sensual pleasure. And, yes, finally, there is the sex. Nobody writes sex scenes like Hijuelos—graphic and poetic at once, a symphony of lush language, both sweaty and transcendent.
A new Hijuelos galley turning up on a Booklist mail truck was always a very special pleasure for me, and I’ll miss it deeply.