Pale and blond, Oscar Hijuelos is not what you'd expect behind the accolade "first Hispanic to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction." His new memoir Thoughts without Cigarettes stands on these traits to describe a lifelong distance from his Cuban heritage—but while Hijuelos' eye for detail and affinity for drawing characters make him an unusually clear observer of the past, his outsider personality and narrative style are minimally analytical.
Born in 1951 in New York City's Morningside Heights (then a diverse working-class neighborhood in Columbia University's shadow), Hijuelos develops Irish coloring (a wonder of recessive genetics) and a failing Spanish tongue. His physical features contrast starkly with Pascual, his dark-complexioned father, who was once a horse-riding postman in the Cuban countryside.
Compounding this divide, Hijuelos' childhood nephritis, a kidney disease often fatal in the 1950s, forces him to spend a year in a children's hospital. When his mother visits (his father never does), he can barely bring himself to speak to her in his disappearing Spanish.
This childhood separation transforms into a persistent detachment from his Cuban identity, personified by his father, who works days as a short-order cook in the Biltmore Hotel and spends most nights in the kind of gallivanting that results in sore throats. Hijuelos describes their trips to Brooklyn beaches: "He'd take me along... strike up a conversation with a woman if she were on a blanket nearby," and then make his way to the water and "[plop] down into it, falling back on his hands or else splashing himself with that foamy rush, always keeping an eye on me to make sure that I kept watch over the plump wallet he'd stash inside his shoes."
Later, Hijuelos poignantly describes trying to write about his father, only to find that he nervously scratches his arms to bleeding. Yet he never delves further into the "bloody mess" on his wrists. It's no small feat to dredge up one's past, but from such a removed perspective, the work he does to bring his father to life seems an incomplete accomplishment.
It's in college, and specifically writing courses, that Hijuelos' life begins to find form. From a part-time night student, he becomes an MFA fellow at City College. He's turned onto Latin and Latin American authors, gains Donald Barthelme as a mentor, and takes the only fiction class ever taught by Susan Sontag. (His anecdote of her mercilessly critiquing student work is one of the book's most memorable.)
While certain relationships are better defined in Hijuelos' life as a writer, he remains a loner. Rampant pretension and sexual exploitation—writers have groupies too—repel him from the literary community. Although his increasingly elite company, especially after the release of his Pulitzer-winning novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, makes for good party stories, the only significant other he describes from this period is a girlfriend who is pretty. His success brings him closer to his mother, but there's a futility in it. Though she writes poetry herself, she can't fully understand the significance of his honors, and carries around a newspaper clipping to show the neighbors.
Hijuelos observes keenly that "a lot of writing is thinking aloud on paper, and necessary if only to discover the real heart of a story." With grace, care, and torment, he presents his past, and if you care to, it's more than enough to reassemble into the man. JANE CARLEN