The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love: A Novel

Overview

From FSG Classics, a special twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Oscar Hijuelos's beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning novel

It's 1949 and two young Cuban musicians make their way from Havana to the grand stage of New York City. It is the era of mambo, and the Castillo brothers, workers by day, become stars of the dance halls by night, where their orchestra plays the lush, sensuous, pulsing music that earns them the title of the Mambo Kings. This is their moment of youth, exuberance, ...

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Overview

From FSG Classics, a special twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Oscar Hijuelos's beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning novel

It's 1949 and two young Cuban musicians make their way from Havana to the grand stage of New York City. It is the era of mambo, and the Castillo brothers, workers by day, become stars of the dance halls by night, where their orchestra plays the lush, sensuous, pulsing music that earns them the title of the Mambo Kings. This is their moment of youth, exuberance, love, and freedom--a golden time that decades later is remembered with nostalgia and deep affection.

Hijuelos's marvelous portrait of the Castillo brothers, their families, their fellow musicians and lovers, their triumphs and tragedies, re-creates the sights and sounds of an era in music and an unsung moment in American life.

Exuberantly celebrated from the moment it was published in 1989, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1990 (making Hijuelos the first Hispanic recipient of the award). It was adapted for a major motion picture in 1992 and remains a perennial bestseller. The story's themes of cultural fusion and identity are as relevant today as they were twenty-five years ago, proving Hijuelos's novel to be a genuine and timeless classic.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"By turns street-smart and lyrical, impassioned and reflective, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love is a rich and provocative book—a moving portrait of a man, his family, a community and a time." —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"One lush, tipsy, all-night mambo of a novel about Cuban musicians in strange places like New York City." —People

The New York Times Michiko Kakutani

By turns street-smart and lyrical, impassioned and reflective, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love is a rich and provocative book--a moving portrait of a man, his family, a community and a time.
People

"One lush, tipsy, all-night mambo of a novel about Cuban musicians in strange places like New York City."
New York Times Book Review
By turns street-smart and lyrical, impassioned and reflective.... A moving potrait of a man, his family, a community, and a time.
Howard Frank Moser
By turns street-smart and lyrical, impassioned and reflective.... A moving potrait of a man, his family, a community, and a time.
Chicago Sun-Times
Margo Jefferson
The novel alternates crisp narrative with opulent musings—the language of everyday and the language of longing.
The New York Times
Michiko Kakutani
By turns street-smart and lyrical, impassioned and reflective, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Loveis a rich and provocative book—a moving portrait of a man, his family, a community and a time. —New York Times
People
One lush, tipsy, all-night mambo of a novel about Cuban musicians in strange places like New York City.
Alice Metcalf Miller
Brilliant... memorable... a heady and powerful triumph... one of the most spectacularly vibrant and moving works by an American in years. —Cleveland Plain Dealer
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The Mambo Kings are two brothers, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, Cuban-born musicians who emigrate to New York City in 1949. They form a band and enjoy modest success, playing dance halls, nightclubs and quince parties in New York's Latin neighborhoods. Their popularity peaks in 1956 with a guest appearance on the I Love Lucy show, playing Ricky Ricardo's Cuban cousins and performing their only hit song in a bittersweet event that both frames the novel and serves as its emblematic heart. Hijuelos's first novel, Our House in the Last World, was justly praised for its tender vignettes of emigré Cuban life; here, he tells of the triumphs and tragedies that befall two men blessed with gigantic appetites and profoundly melancholic hearts—Cesar, the elder, and the bandleader, committed to the pursuit of life's pleasures, and Nestor, he of the "dark, soulful countenance,'' forever plunging through a dark, Latin gloom. In a performance that deepens the canon of American ethnic literature, Hijuelos evokes, by day, a New York of crowded Harlem apartments made cheery by Cuban hospitality, and by night, a raucous club scene of stiletto heels and waxy pompadours—all set against a backdrop of a square, 1950s America that thinks worldliness means knowing the cha-cha. With an unerring ear for period idioms ("Hello you big lug'') and a comic generosity that renders even Cesar's sexual bravado forgivable if not quite believable, Hijuelos has depicted a world as enchanting (yet much closer to home) as that in García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera. The lyricism of Hijuelos's language is wonderfully restrained, conveying with equal facility ribald comedy and heartfelt pathos. Despite a questionable choice of narrative conceit (Cesar recollects the novel from a seedy "Hotel Splendour'' in 1980), Hijuelos's pure storytelling skills commission every incident with a life and breath of its own. (Aug.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374535834
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 9/1/2015
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 1,053,740

Meet the Author

Oscar Hijuelos

Oscar Hijuelos was born of Cuban parentage in New York in 1951 and graduated from City College with a master's in creative writing, studying under the likes of Susan Sontag, Donald Barthelme, and William S. Burroughs. His first novel, Our House in the Last World, was published in 1985. In 1990 he became the first Hispanic writer to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He is also the recipient of the Rome Prize in Literature from the American Academy in Rome, an Ingram Merrill Foundation Award, and the Hispanic Heritage Award for Literature, along with several grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He wrote eight novels which, have been translated into more than twenty-five languages. He passed away in 2013.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      August 24, 1951
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., City College of the City University of New York, 1975; M.A.,1976

Read an Excerpt

It was a Saturday afternoon on La Salle Street, years and years ago when I was a little kid, and around three o'clock Mrs. Shannon, the heavy Irish woman in her perpetually soup-stained dress, opened her back window and shouted out into the courtyard, "Hey, Cesar, yoo-hoo, I think you're on television, I swear it's you!" When I heard the opening strains of the I Love Lucy show I got excited because I knew she was referring to an item of eternity, that episode in which my dead father and my Uncle Cesar had appeared, playing Ricky Ricardo's singing cousins fresh off the farm in Oriente Province, Cuba, and north in New York for an engagement at Ricky's nightclub, the Tropicana.

This was close enough to the truth about their real lives--they were musicians and songwriters who had left Havana for New York in 1949, the year they formed the Mambo Kings, an orchestra that packed clubs, dance halls, and theaters around the East Coast--and, excitement of excitements, they even made a fabled journey in a flamingo-pink bus out to Sweet's Ballroom in San Francisco, playing on an all-star mambo night, a beautiful night of glory, beyond death, beyond pain, beyond all stillness.

Desi Arnaz had caught their act one night in a supper club on the West Side, and because they had perhaps already known each other from Havana or Oriente Province, where Arnaz, like the brothers, was born, it was natural that he ask them to sing on his show.He liked one of their songs in particular, a romantic bolero written by them, "Beautiful Mania of My Soul."

Some months later (I don't know how many, I wasn't five years old yet) they began to rehearse for the immortal appearance of myfather on this show.For me, my father's gentle rapping on Ricky Ricardo's door has always been a call from the beyond, as in Dracula films, or films of the walking dead, in which spirits ooze out from behind tombstones and through the cracked windows and rotted floors of gloomy antique halls: Lucille Ball, the lovely redheaded actress and comedienne who played Ricky's wife, was housecleaning when she heard the rapping of my father's knuckles against that door.

"I'm commmmmming," in her singsong voice.

Standing in her entrance, two men in white silk suits and butterfly-looking lace bow ties, black instrument cases by their side and black-brimmed white hats in their hands--my father, Nestor Castillo, thin and broad-shouldered, and Uncle Cesar, thickset and immense.

My uncle: "Mrs.Ricardo? My name is Alfonso and this is my brother Manny..."

And her face fights up and she says, "Oh, yes, the fellows from Cuba.Ricky told me all about you."

Then, just like that, they're sitting on the couch when Ricky Ricardo walks in and says something like "Manny, Alfonso! Gee, it's really swell that you fellas could make it up here from Havana for the show."

That's when my father smiled.The first time I saw a rerun of this, I could remember other things about him--his lifting me up, his smell of cologne, his patting my head, his handing me a dime, his touching my face, his whistling, his taking me and my little sister, Leticia, for a walk in the park, and so many other moments happening in my thoughts simultaneously that it was like watching something momentous, say the Resurrection, as if Christ had stepped out of his sepulcher, flooding the world with fight-what we were taught in the local church with the big red doors--because my father was now newly alive and could take off his hat and sit down on the couch in Ricky's living room, resting his black instrument case on his lap.He could play the trumpet, move his head, blink his eyes, nod, walk across the room, and say "Thank you" when offered a cup of coffee.For me, the room was suddenly bursting with a silvery radiance.And now I knew that we could see it again.Mrs. Shannon had called out into the courtyard alerting my uncle: I was already in his apartment.

With my heart racing, I turned on the big black-and-white television set in his living room and tried to wake him.My uncle had fallen asleep in the kitchen--having worked really late the night before, some job in a Bronx social club, singing and playing the horn with a pickup group of musicians.He was snoring, his shirt was open, a few buttons had popped out on his belly.Between the delicate-looking index and middle fingers of his right hand, a Chesterfield cigarette burning down to the filter, that hand still holding a half glass of rye whiskey, which he used to drink Eke crazy because in recent years he had been suffering from bad dreams, saw apparitions, felt cursed, and, despite all the women he took to bed, found his life of bachelorhood solitary and wearisome.But I didn't know this at the time, 1 thought he was sleeping because he had worked so hard the night before, singing and playing the trumpet for seven or eight hours. I'm talking about a wedding party in a crowded, smoke-filled room (with boltedshut fire doors), lasting from nine at night to four, five o'clock in the morning, the band playing one-, two-hour sets. I thought he just needed the rest.How could I have known that he would come home and, in the name of unwinding, throw back a glass of rye, then a second, and then a third, and so on, until he'd plant his elbow on the table and use it to steady his chin, as he couldn't hold his head up otherwise.But that day I ran into the kitchen to wake him up so that he could see the episode, too, shaking him gently and tugging at his elbow, which was a mistake, because it was as if I had pulled loose the support columns of a five-hundred-year-old church: he simply fell over and crashed to the floor.

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Reading Group Guide

About the Book
"The Mambo Kings" are two brothers, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, who flee from Cuba in 1949 to reinvent themselves in the burgeoning Cuban music scene in New York City. The flamboyant Cesar, with his unquenchable thirst for women and drink, couldn't be more different from the quiet and melancholic Nestor, who spends his life pining away for an unrequited love he left behind in Cuba. While Cesar seduces legions of women, Nestor writes, and rewrites 22 times, the sad love song "Beautiful Maria of My Soul" in a futile attempt to conjure his lost love. Together, they form the core of a mambo band that finds relative success in the dance halls of New York, even touring as far as the Midwest with their act. But the height of their fame comes when Desi Arnaz hears them play their hit song, "Beautiful Maria of My Soul," and hires them to perform on the I Love Lucy TV show. The Mambo Kings' moment of fame is short lived, however. When the musical tastes of the country move on and the band dissolves, and Nestor dies in a freak automobile accident, Cesar spirals into an alcoholic depression. A temporary job as a building superintendent becomes a twenty-year career and the mythically virile Cesar finds himself an old man long past his prime. The story of their lives is told in flashback from the perspective of the aging Cesar, quietly drinking himself to death in the Hotel Splendour as he listens to an old Mambo Kings record and remembers the songs he's sung and the women he's loved. As the seminal moment in the Mambo Kings' lives, their performance on the I Love Lucy show, reappears on rerun after rerun throughout the novel, their televised appearance subtly transformsinto an evocative and haunting image of a past world that is long gone. Topics for Discussion
  • Why do you think Hijuelos would endow Cesar with such exaggerated sexuality? Why does he stretch the limits of believability? Is he satirizing or celebrating traditional Latino machismo?
  • What role does the I Love Lucy show play in the lives of the Castillo brothers? What is the effect of its frequent recurrence throughout the novel? Does the emotional resonance of the episode change over the course of the novel? How so?
  • The novel appears to be a series of temporally disconnected vignettes remembered by a dying Cesar Castillo. And yet there are times when the novel "loses" the sense that the events it is portraying are Cesar's memories. Why do you think Hijuelos employs such a loose structure for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love? Does the lack of a traditional plot structure serve the subject matter? How so? What insights are provided into Cesar's character by the use of such a non-linear structure?
  • What do the two brothers sacrifice by coming to America? What have they each left behind in Cuba? What role do memories of their homeland play in their lives in America? Which brother is best able to leave their past behind? Which brother best assimilates in the U.S.?
  • What is each of the brothers' relationship to the American dream? Do they achieve it? To what degree? How does the American dream fail them? What does the pamphlet, Forward America, mean to Nestor?
  • Is Nestor a good father? Is Cesar? What ideas of fatherhood were passed down to the brothers from their father? How would you characterize their relationship to their father?
  • Do you think The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love is a tale specific to Cuban immigrants, or is it applicable to all immigrants? Or to all Americans of that generation? What aspects of the story transcend the Cuban immigrant experience? Which are unique to Cuban Americans?
  • What is the role of women in Cesar's life? Why does he have sex with so many? Does he love any of his sexual partners? Is Lydia an exception? Why does she seem to dominate his memories? Why doesn't Cesar ever make love to Delores?
  • Throughout the novel are occasional footnotes with historical details. Who is the voice of these footnotes? Hijuelos? Cesar? Eugenio? How did the footnotes affect your reading of the novel? Why do you think Hijuelos employs this device? About the Author: The son of Cuban immigrants, Oscar Hijuelos was born in New York City in 1951. He received a B.A. from New York's City College, where he studied writing under Donald Barthelme. Before he became a full-time author, Hijuelos endured a series of odd jobs: raising insects in Wisconsin, selling shoes in Macy's and writing ads that appeared in New York City subway cars. His first novel, Our House in the Last World, won him the American Academy of Arts and Letter's 1985 Rome Prize, enabling him to spend a year in Italy and begin his second novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. This was followed by The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O' Brien, Mr. Ives' Christmas, and The Empress of the Splendid Season. Hijuelos lives in New York City.
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