Saturday, October 19, 2013

OSCAR HIJUELOS : An Appreciation / The Pulitzer prize winning Author of Mambo Kings Sings Songs of Love has completed his last Conga Solo / By Joshua A. TRILIEGI

OSCAR HIJUELOS : An Appreciation

The Pulitzer prize winning Author of 
Mambo Kings Sings Songs of Love 
has completed his last Conga Solo


 The day that I first came across a copy of Oscar Hijuelos 's 
Novel " Mambo King's Sing Song's of Love " was the day I 
had decided that I wanted to be a novelist. I had published 
poems, written songs, created short stories and had a 
screenplay considered as a finalist at the Sundance Writers 
workshop. I had never written a novel, but upon reading 
Mambo Kings, there was a passion, an honesty, a raw 
intensity that described a world, an experience, a view 
into a private and personal experience that, to me, was 
perfect. It was as if his story about latin jazz musicians 
from Cuba, spoke directly to me. It said, this is a world 
of men and women , music and silence, love and hate , 
loss and gain, pain and pleasure, rejection and acceptance,
power and peasants, talent and ownership, life and death.

I changed the direction of my entire life because of Oscar 
Hijuelos. While working comfortably as an artist, furniture 
designer, interior designer and sometime art department 
assistant for film, I left it all behind and moved to Milwaukee 
Wisconsin to research my own novel based on real life events 
in my own family heritage. I had been conducting interviews 
with family members for over a decade, but until I had found 
Mambo Kings, I had no idea ' how ' to go about compiling, 
expressing and telling the stories I was being told. Mr Hijuelos'
broad, colorful, expansive and passionate storytelling style 
became a road map for me. I must have read and re read 
his novel several times a year for several years. Whenever, 
I got stuck, lost inspiration or needed that extra boost, it 
always brought me back into the fold. 

In Nineteen Ninety-nine, while living in and researching the 
city of Milwaukee and the Italian immigrant experience,
Mr Hijuelos was being interviewed on national public radio.
I called into the show and we spoke about his book and how 
it had inspired me. I was elated to speak publicly to one of 
my mentors. The show moderator asked me what it was that 
I liked about Mr Hijuelos' work and I tried my best to describe 
it. Mr Hijuelos, upon hearing that I too had a story in current 
development, wanted to know what it was that made my own 
story so special and we talked at length about our families.
It was a pinnacle moment for me and I recorded it for future 
posterity. Now, sadly, we have lost Oscar Hijuelos to the other 
world. The world where people go when they leave this one.

In the Mambo Kings novel, the loss and death of a brother 
stings the life of another, leaving a giant absence, where 
there once was partnership, friendship, collaboration, union.
For an entire page and a half, Oscar describes a drum solo 
that precedes the death of his character's heart beat ending. 
It is a fabulous description of a crucial moment in a man's 
life that is indulgent, detailed, imaginative and glorious. 
Mr Hijuelos' s prose style is so in tune with his culture, that 
of the cuban immigrant experience: the food, the music, 
the fashion, the passion, the way of talking, walking, thinking. 
His sentences are way beyond what writing school teachers 
would describe as ' run - ons '. He breaks all the rules and it 
works. Like a drum solo that goes on and on and on, he had 
a way of keeping us on the dance floor late into the night. 
I would often stay up late into the early hours reading the 
Mambo Kings. I am still working on my novel about the 
early italian immigrants of the mid west and am still in 
debt to Mr Hijuelos. He would have been the perfect author 
to provide the proverbial jacket cover commentary. Am I 
sad that he is gone from this world ? No. Why not ? Well,
when a man reaches his goals, stretches beyond his wildest 
imagination and achieves a certain level of professionalism,
we can only know that through that expression, that work, 
that craft, that art, that, all is well, in this world and the next.

Mr Hijuelos went on to write about other situations, but for 
me and for many, his masterpiece, with which he received 
a Pulitzer prize in the early Nineteen - Eighties, was absolute.
It describes the life of Cubans, the life of musicians, the inner 
lives of men, passion and growing old in such a way that it 
is a living document of a time and a place. That is what a 
writer needs to do: tell it to us in a way that we can see, 
hear, feel, taste, smell, touch. Take us there, bring us back,
help us understand where you are and get us to join you there.
Mr Hijuelos and the Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love is indeed 
a classic novel that achieve's all of this and more. His style is 
detailed, abundant and even indulgent, as if he is sitting at the  
table and can't help but heap upon his plate more of the great 
cuban food and rum, or play the album one more time or tell 
the story of a long lost love just one more time. It is a painful 
story of leaving those you love behind you, to, ' Make it ' in 
America. The price we pay for love, success, expression. An 
aching world of yearning for possibilities in the big city and 
finding that the politics of success are just as important as 
the talent it takes to get you there. There is a major motion 
picture that hints at the characters & may help to familiarize 
the situations, but it should lead you directly to the prose.

I recently interviewed Miles Perlich, a radio host and aficionado 
of latin jazz and couldn't help but mention Oscar Hijuelos and 
Mambo Kings during the interview, as it is a great reference to 
the period, the art, the world of latin jazz. If you have not read 
Mambo Kings, put it on your list. Mr Hijuelos's employment of 
the asterisk is used so often and so indulgently, that it probably 
surprised his publishers and his readers. Not unlike the way that 
Cubans, in a heated conversation, will often digress into an 
explanation of a term, an idea or a phrase. The asterisk does 
just that, with a side story peperred here and there throughout.  
I found the device to be clever, funny and spot-on regarding 
the immigrant experience, where, just about every cultural 
detail needs a bit of explaining to whoever is listening. 

I have learned directly from my contemporary mentors in 
literature: Raymond Carver for honesty, Richard Russo for 
overall structure, Joyce Carol Oates for descriptive detail, 
Jack Kerouac for spiritual inspiration, George Sand for a 
sort of defiance, Hunter S. Thompson for insanity, Sherman 
Alexie for honing heritage, Jane Hamilton for painful portraiture,
Charles Bukowski for simplicity, Alice Walker for patient plotting,
but no one artist has taught me more about passion on the 
page, than Mr. Hijuelos & Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love.
As a writer, as a reader, I can honestly say that I love the 
afore mentioned writers. There is a long list of performers, 
writers, directors, artists, architects, photographers and 
philosophers that I could compose, but these are the writers 
that come to mind. While recently creating a new novel, by 
simply writing a chapter a day for three weeks straight and 
publishing each chapter, each day, these were the writers 
that came to mind. The project is entitled, " They Call it 
The City of Angels ". I owe a simple thank you to them all.
As for my longterm project, inspired by Mr Hijuelos, that 
is an altogether different type of work and indeed there will 
be a thank you printed somewhere within the pages of its 
publication. Until then, Thank You Oscar Hijuelos. Thank You. 

Joshua Triliegi for
 BUREAU of Arts and Culture Magazine