Picks and Pans Review: The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love

updated 10/23/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/23/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Oscar Hijuelos

"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 an all-star mambo night, a beautiful night of glory, beyond death, beyond pain, beyond all stillness."

These are the memories of Eugenio Castillo as set down in Hijuelos's lush second novel. It is a book of teeming remembrances, mainly those of Eugenio's slick, scented, lubricious Uncle Cesar, a singer of sweet songs and a master of smooth talk; of Eugenio's father, Nestor, a shy, melancholic trumpet player, unable to forget Maria, the woman he loved and lost in Cuba, then immortalized in the Mambo Kings' one big hit, "Beautiful Maria of My Soul."

There is a journalist's eye for detail in Hijuelos's depiction of late '40s and '50s New York after the brothers made their hajj from Cuba. They work by day in a meat-packing plant, by night in small clubs and cavernous dance halls where they compete for gigs with Mambo Pete and his Caribbean Crooners, the Havana Melody Band, Juan Valentino and His Mad Mambo Rompers.

The Mambo Kings never had the prominence of Tito Puente or Perez Prado, but they did have their moment of glory as guest stars on I Love Lucy, and they did record 15 78s and three 33s: "ballads, boleros, and an infinite variety of fast dance numbers. The compositions capturing moments of youthful cockiness ('A thousand women have I continually satisfied because I am an amorous man!'). Songs about flirtation, magic, blushing brides, cheating husbands, cuckolds and the cuckolded, flirtatious beauties, humiliations. Happy, sad, fast and slow."

The novel itself spins out like an LP with certain numbers reprised: the brothers' appearance on I Love Lucy; Cesar's conquests of the concupiscent Vanna Vane, Dahlia Munez, who was known as the Argentine Flame of Passion, Cecelia, Anastasia and so on and so on; Nestor's recurring dreams about Maria. For both Nestor and Cesar, the only possible release is through their music and through sexual encounters that are unsparingly limned and logged.

One does not read Mambo Kings for the plot—which is small and attenuated—but for its evocation of the flavor of an era, and its use of language. Hijuelos tells of Nestor's mournful trumpet solos "flying like black angels" through the air, of Cesar's "languorous heavy-jowled hound's face glowing like white stone" and his eyes "filled with a black liquid of sorrow." If by novel's end one is exhausted by Cesar's remembrances of times long past, one is also exhilarated by Hijuelos's shimmering prose. (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $18.95)

From Our Partners