“’Me siento contento cuando sufro,’ he sang one day, ‘I feel happy when I’m suffering.’”
I can’t really point to any particular reason I’ve decided to start with this novel, other than my fascination with 1950’s culture. We all point to this era and say, “Oh, simpler times…” But, in reality, the 50’s and 60’s weren’t entirely different from the fear-driven culture we currently live in. Just as we fear terrorists and nuclear annihilation, people from just a few generations before us were fearing Communists and nuclear annihilation. We like to think that, with programming like Leave It to Beaver and The Howdy Doody Show, that the 50’s were a purer time, with less filth and perversion than we find in modern culture, but I’m not sure that’s entirely true.
When I finished Hijuelos’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (1990), The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, I was really expecting a different emotional reaction than the one I actually had. For 400 pages, the reader wrestles through some really gut-wrenching, emotional situations — I became attached to one of the characters, Nestor, only to have him taken away from me in a lackluster way; I empathized with his struggles, his thoughts and feelings about romance, relationships and the world around him; I grimaced and wagged my finger at his brother, Cesar, as he lived a life of incontinence and debauchery. As I approached the last sections of the novel, I was really hoping for a redemption story — some kind of conclusion that would relieve me of the anxiety and anger I was feeling. Instead, as I read the last few paragraphs, closed the book and laid it on the nightstand next to my bed, I was overwhelmed by a wave of sorrow.
The most interesting aspect of The Mambo Kings was the distorted and perverted ideals of manliness each man in the book possesses. Nearly every male character in the book emoted certain depraved traits that defined their manhood; in fact, the only “decent” man in the book (cousin Pablo, a family man) was a minor character who was given very few lines. Cesar was a violent, erratic, bawdy, womanizing drunkard whose chief end was to have a great time; Nestor was a quiet, introspective romantic trying to find his place and meaning in the world; their father was abusive; Eugenio, Nestor’s son, was a lot like his father, but with his uncle’s anger and bitterness; the rest of the characters are a blur of rapists, pimps, gang lords, down and outers and pushovers. But the one personality trait that acts as a link between these very different men is their machismo. The dictionary defines machismo as “a strong or exaggerated sense of manliness; an assumptive attitude that virility, courage, strength, and entitlement to dominate are attributes or concomitants of masculinity.” The men in the book show off their machismo, sometimes dripping with it, toward the women in their lives, their children and each other. Cesar, in particular, demonstrates his ideas of what a man should be most overtly, practicing domination and control over women by playing mind games, threatening them and leaving them without so much as moment’s notice. He is completely full of himself, fully aware of his good looks and sexual talents — on page 39, he even exclaims, “A thousand women have I continually satisfied, because I am an amorous man!” The narrative of his life that Hijuelos describes is a blur of women’s names and faces that he either can’t remember or can’t forget, addictions and incurable sadness. He breaks hearts left and right — “loves ’em and leaves ’em,” as they say. Nestor, on the other hand, is the polar opposite of his brother — quiet, introspective, shy, mysterious, tormented even. “The quiet poet,” pining away for lost love. The most tragic part of his story, however, isn’t his untimely death — it’s that his greatest mistake (pushing away his one true love, Maria) was brought on at the behest of his brother, Cesar. Nestor and Maria were hopelessly in love, Nestor always portraying the last true romantic, when Cesar advised him that it’s no good for a man to show weakness, even in love, to a woman; that he must show her who’s really wearing the pants in the relationship. So, at his brother’s advice, — a man whom he greatly looked up to and admired — Nestor began bossing Maria around, putting her down verbally, ignoring her; acting like what he was advised a man should be. Of course, Maria left him for another man and, from then on, Nestor was haunted by the memories of her and the thoughts of what might’ve been. Even during his marriage to another woman, Nestor pined for Maria and was still madly in love with her ghost. It was for her, of course, that he wrote the bolero, “Beautiful Maria of My Soul,” The Mambo Kings greatest musical success. Now, when Hijuelos describes Cesar and Nestor’s father, their personalities suddenly make a bit more sense. Their father, Pedro, is, for all intents and purposes, an absentee father. Despite his physical presence in their childhood lives, he was never for them emotionally — he didn’t teach them the ways of manhood, he didn’t disciple them. Instead, he squelched them out, abused them and beat them into hatred for the man. At one point in the novel, when Cesar meets a bandleader who takes him under his wing, Hijuelos writes, “Cesar would have thought of Julian as a ‘second father’ if the word ‘father’ did not make him want to punch a wall.” Later in the book, several specific instances of his father’s abuse are described — the most horrifying of these is a scene in which Pedro is chasing Cesar through some fields when he steps on a stake that penetrates straight through his foot; Cesar, of course, helps his father home and nurses him. Just when the reader starts to believe that maybe this moment is one of reconciliation, Pedro reaches out and slaps his son across the face. Clearly, with a father like that, Cesar and Nestor were doomed to become men with severe developmental flaws. They essentially had to teach themselves the ways of manhood.
In the opening section of the book, before we are even properly introduced to the main characters, Hijuelos describes Cesar and Nestor’s appearance on I Love Lucy, singing their hit song, “Beautiful Maria of My Soul.” This moment, their appearance on I Love Lucy, proved to be the very pinnacle of their success and the apex of their lives. It was their defining work — the piece they would forever be most remembered for. Now, even though this song was Nestor’s baby, it would prove itself to be a healing balm for both brothers throughout the remainder of their lives. The song was their escape from the cares of their lives and, ultimately, Cesar’s escape from life altogether, as it played out his remaining breaths in the Hotel Splendour. I was reminded of a guitar teacher I had once — Gustavo (“Gus”) Gutierrez, a Cuban guy who was approaching his 70’s. Every Tuesday night, he’d show up ten minutes late, wearing a white, V-neck undershirt, black slacks and sandals, his belly bulging over his waistband and his breath smelling of booze. He’d sit down in his chair, pull out his beautiful hollow-body guitar, close his eyes and effortlessly run a few jazz scales. And every week, he’d forget what we were practicing the week before. So, because I had a more enjoyable time just listening to him play, I would lie to him: “Well, last week we finished this song, and you said you were going to play this song for me this week” and I’d pull a song out of his file cabinet. In the 50’s and 60’s, he was a rhythm guitarist for a jazz combo in Chicago and they’d play songs like “Unforgettable,” “San Antonio Rose” and “You’re Nobody (‘Til Somebody Loves You).” So every week, he’d introduce a new song to me by explaining the first time he’d heard it, the first time he’d played it and the audience’s reaction. It was almost magical to watch his old fingers weaving mellow tones into the air between us, seeing him lose himself in the music of his yesterdays. One week, he just stopped showing up for lessons and I had to start taking lessons from another teacher who wasn’t nearly as talented and wasn’t nearly as passionate about music as Gus was. I saw him almost two years later, in a grocery store, wearing the same V-neck undershirt, with sweat and food stains all over it, his hair was greasy and completely disheveled. Instead of his characteristic black slacks and sandals, he was walking around in boxers and slippers, buying cheap frozen pizzas and Ramen noodles. I’m not sure what ever happened to Gus, but I can only imagine that his alcoholism got the best of him. For his sake, I hope he was still losing himself in the jazz of his youth.