Duckies

Jane Mendelsohn

  • The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos
    Penguin, 416 pp, £4.99, November 1990, ISBN 0 14 014391 2
  • The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien by Oscar Hijuelos
    Hamish Hamilton, 484 pp, £15.99, July 1993, ISBN 0 241 13431 5

Ricky Ricardo, Lucy’s famously strict yet malleable husband in the I Love Lucy show, embodied an elegant Latin machismo which was constantly being undermined by the wiles of the American princess. He had romance and charm and a first-generation scepticism, but he was no competition for the native white girl who just wanted to have some fun. Lucy, the beloved, in her perpetually clean apron and pouty lipstick, represented a philosophy of fun. Anything could happen in her black-and-white living-room; the world seemed to expand with the curl of her lip or an exaggerated wink of her eye. Life was an Emersonian dream of possibility held in check only by the reality principle, which came, oddly enough, in the form of a Cuban nightclub singer who spoke with a silly, sexy accent and played a big drum.

Lucy and Ricky and their real-life incarnations, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, make cameo appearances in Oscar Hijuelos’s spirited and lyrical second novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. Their descent, god-like, into the lives of two Cuban brothers, Nestor and Cesar Castillo, both of whom arrive in New York from Havana in 1949 and who are the lead members of a band called The Mambo Kings, reveals the gulf between the Hollywood life and the immigrant life, between the stardom of television and the boredom of music halls.

When Desi hears the Mambo Kings in a club one night and hangs out afterwards to chat with Nestor and Cesar, he and the Castillos discover that they’re from the same province of Cuba. Brotherhood abounds, and Desi and Lucy (she somewhat grudgingly) go back to the Castillos’ crowded apartment in Harlem for a festive Cuban dinner. After this just-like-in-the-old-country night of male bonding, Desi invites the brothers on the I Love Lucy show. The novel opens with Nestor’s son Eugenio describing what it was like as a child, years after his father’s death and his uncle’s collapse into alcoholism, to watch Nestor and Cesar Castillo come back to life, miraculously, on a re-run of I Love Lucy, the zenith of their marginally successful performing careers.

This rich incident, comic and tragic and highly entertaining, is the central event in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, and it captures perfectly the multitude of feelings Hijuelos wants to express about immigrant life, Cuban machismo and the American dream. Told partially in the form of an extended flashback from the point of view of the bloated, broken-down Cesar Castillo, The Mambo Kings is an attempt – a very successful one – both to deflate the objects of Hijuelos’s preoccupation and at the same time to celebrate their glamour and mystery. Cesar and Nestor’s lives have a grittiness that flowers into magic when they’re on stage in their flamingo-pink, black-lapelled suits, but for the most part their existence is full of nostalgia and world-weariness.

Their dissatisfaction, however, is definitely not sexual: in bed, the Mambo Kings give performances that would put I Love Lucy off the air for ever. Hijuelos takes on Cuban machismo as if he were cataloguing it in all its varieties for a museum retrospective – the book has a lot of fun with run-on lists and contains wonderfully detailed footnotes – and this excess turns the brothers’ sexual prowess, especially Cesar’s, into something of a joke: ‘He’d always thought his big pinga would take care of things.’ The novel contains many descriptions of male and female genitalia and everything in between, including a baking-soda and Coca-Cola douche, and after a while, Cesar’s pinga, however big and beautiful, comes to stand for (no pun intended) his exhausting quest for an unattainable dream.

This dream might be called the American dream, but Hijuelos is careful not to blame the Castillos’s unhappiness on their adopted country; the source of their lifelong misery, if it is to be found anywhere, lies in a combination of Cuban melancholia and child abuse. Although Nestor marries and has a family in New York, he spends most of his life pining for a woman in Havana. The Mambo Kings’ biggest hit, ‘Beautiful Maria of my Soul’, about the lover who rejected Nestor, is a mournful bolero which he rewrites obsessively, enjoying his languorous grief. Describing the physical torment Cesar endures later in life, Hijuelos explains that ‘the pain didn’t bother him, for all his scars, bruises and cuts. Because he was a diehard macho and because the pain made him feel as if he were paying his way in the world.’ Attacked late at night by three men, ‘the Mambo King rolled over and covered up his head the way he used to when his Papi beat him.’ But more than machismo and the memory of violence, it seems to be the Cuban character, anguished and sorrowful behind a façade of conviviality, that marks the Castillo brothers as poets of despair: ‘Many of his friends were that way, troubled souls. They would seem happy – especially when they’d talk about women and music – but when they had finished floating through the euphoric layer of their sufferings, they opened their eyes in a world of pure sadness and pain.’

Hijuelos’s latest novel, The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien, tries to do for femininity what The Mambo Kings did for masculinity. The result is less successful, at least in part because Hijuelos’s conception of women is quite a bit simpler than his take on the Cuban male; he sees the child-like confusion beneath Ricky’s showmanship, but he doesn’t really understand Lucy. Like The Mambo Kings, The Fourteen Sisters spans many years in the life of one family and brackets its narrative with the internal musings of one character, in this case, the likeable Margarita Montez O’Brien. Margarita is the oldest daughter of Nelson O’Brien, an Irish immigrant, and Mariela Montez, a sensitive and haughty Cuban beauty whom he meets while stationed in Santiago as a photographer during the Spanish-American War. After settling in Cobbleton, Pennsylvania, Nelson and Mariela people the town, producing, between 1902 and 1925, 14 daughters and one son.

When the book opens in 1921, an aviator has just crashed near the Montez O’Brien property, having been lured down to earth by ‘a sirenic beam of influence’ emanating from the Montez O’Brien sisters. The first few pages of the novel describe the abundant, positively botanical lushness of the household, and the effect is pretty sickening. The writing has none of the jazzy, ironic edge that made the lengthy footnotes and endless lists in The Mambo Kings so effective and funny. At the beginning of The Fourteen Sisters everyone is painting birds on glass jars, or ironing or singing or cooking or menstruating, cheerfully. If they’re not sewing ‘bright peacock curtains with florid trim, brimming with sunlight’, they’re decorating the fireplace mantel ‘with the bisque-headed dolls of their childhood’. The prose is supposed to exude a fecund happiness, but it just gives off gas – García Márquez with a digestive problem.

All happy families are not alike, but many of them aren’t very interesting. For the first thirty or so pages of Hijuelos’s book, the Montez O’Briens reveal themselves to be a deadly happy family, with nothing to distinguish them except a saccharin exuberance and a lot of period detail. Even the sisters are difficult to tell apart, though after a while their differences become clearer and the book begins to pick up. Margarita grows into a bookish and romantic young woman who enters into an unhappy marriage; Olga, Maria and Jacqueline are the musical ones; Helen’s the beauty; Irene’s fat; Patricia has spiritual powers. We learn the story of Nelson’s misty Irish childhood and his coming to Cuba. We follow Nelson and Mariela through their courtship, their honeymoon and their voyage to Pennsylvania. Hijuelos moves easily in and out of everyone’s story, and what the writing lacks in depth, it makes up for in busyness. Like a cheap perfume, The Fourteen Sisters starts off cloying, takes on a sweet familiarity, and eventually, despite ones better judgment, becomes a habit.

The prose improves as the story deepens. Hijuelos still writes best when evoking the exoticism of Cuba – the sisters dream at night of a Cuba they’ve never seen, of orchids growing out of the walls of their rooms and lianas hanging from the beams of their Pennsylvania house – or the melancholia of masculinity, whether Irish or Cuban, or just plain American. Nelson loses his mother at an early age, and as a result he suffers from ‘life fatigue’, a queasiness that has to do with women: ‘He would feel afflicted by hand mirrors, of Celtic or French design, with sea-shell or gemstone-topped finials, ovular in their shapeliness; by broken morning rolls, soft silken purses; by hammocks swaying in the breeze, wash-basins, urinals, drains, sewers: these bothered him.’

Emilio, the youngest offspring and only son in the Montez O’Brien clan, shares his father’s difficulty with women, although instead of being allergic to all things feminine, he seems to be uncontrollably drawn to them. Raised by his doting, nurturing sisters, and unable to shake the infantile bliss of being cared for, he spends most of his adult life struggling with a ‘tendency to feel easy attractions and to fall in love too quickly’. He moves to Hollywood and becomes a B-movie star. He marries twice; the first time ends in scandal, the second in tragedy. Sometimes, like his father, he senses ‘the spell of the feminine influence’ in everything – ‘the paper flowers, rounded and curvaceous, that the cafe-owner put out on his tables, the undulating and fancy script of the menu, saying “Cappucino, 20 cents”’.

The men in Hijuelos’s books are more complicated but less intelligent than the women. Nelson and Emilio don’t ever grasp the intricate beauty and simple wisdom of life the way Margarita eventually does. They’re too busy unpeeling the layers of their pain under the influence of Dr Arnold’s Relaxation Heightener; both of them spend most of their lives drunk. Margarita, on the other hand, carries on. She survives an abusive marriage, gets an education, keeps the family together, cares for her aging mother, and finds love and aerobics in old age. Her character gives the book its spine and purpose; she embodies the women’s movement – not the feminist movement, exactly, but the movement of women – in the 20th century, and her progress is interesting and informative. At times, her character rises above its responsibilities. In her forties she gets to look like Ava Gardner and have an affair in Spain. And in her nineties she finds the passion she’d always dreamed of with a gentleman named Leslie Howard.

The novel skilfully chronicles the lives of the 13 other sisters, all of whom have their share of fortune and misfortune; however, the dutiful exposition can read like an excessively protracted tour through someone else’s family album. The scope of the Montez O’Briens’ experiences gives the book the weight and diversity of real life, but not the buzz of compelling fiction. The sisters’ lives rarely intersect – and they never clash. Conflict, in fact, remains remarkably absent from this family. There’s barely any sibling rivalry to speak of, and even when one of them marries a suitor whom another one rejected, everyone seems perfectly delighted, or rather, no one seems to care.

Though Hijuelos’s interest is in the life the family live over time, the best moments in the book are quirky, specific ones. Nelson O’Brien is greeted in death by the photographer for whom he worked as a child and the town undertaker, who nonchalantly usher him off to heaven. Mariela O’Brien, who (it turns out) wrote touching, flowery verses all her life, becomes an aristocratic matriarch in old age. One of the more dramatic of her poems, a memory of her first sexual encounter, shows up near the end of the novel when Margarita sorts through her mother’s notes after her death, revealing Mariela’s stormy internal life and shocking her daughter. In my favourite incident, Maria, the third sister, discusses romance with Noël Coward on the deck of an ocean-liner. He calls her ‘ducky’ and lets her know ‘that our lives are rather like the cresting waves, with highs and lows, that the moon illumines the night as emotion brings a glorious flame into our hearts. But what one must do, when the thrills are gone, is not to let our joys be destroyed by sentimentality. Curious, isn’t it?’ It is indeed, especially coming from the pages of this book, which only escapes being helplessly sentimental by avoiding the thrills altogether. There are highs and lows here, but nothing of the glorious flame which set The Mambo Kings on fire.