Gotham Books: 367 pp., $27.50
Was there ever a time and place more alive and unpredictable than New York City in the middle decades of the 20th century?
Oscar Hijuelos was lucky enough to live there then, a son of Cuban immigrants. In his often deeply affecting memoir, "Thoughts Without Cigarettes," he describes the odd cast that called his West Harlem street home.
He had German and Irish best friends, jammed with black and Latino jazz musicians — and got mugged again and again. Every so often, the rocket engineer Wernher von Braun walked past his window.
It's a neighborhood where everyone came from somewhere else and was headed somewhere better. But young Oscar grows up without much ambition and distant from his Latino identity. Among other things, he doesn't feel he can rightfully call himself Cuban.
"Who and what am I? Why is it that I hate seeing what I see when I look in the mirror?" he asks.
It's an odd thing to hear from a writer who will eventually make so many Latino readers feel good about being Latino. But eventually, thinking and writing about his New York City period helps Hijuelos figure it all out.
"But don't you know?" a Cuban American therapist finally tells him. "Eres cubano. You're Cuban, after all."
"Thoughts Without Cigarettes" begins with the Hijuelos family's origins in provincial Cuba and their arrival in New York in the late 1940s. And it ends with Hijuelos' coronation in 1990 as the first Latino writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Every Latino writer published since (including this reviewer) owes Hijuelos a debt of gratitude — his work helped open the door of New York publishing to us.His memoir is both a coming-of-age story and a tale of literary awakening, and it contains many a melancholy and uplifting twist.
His personal recipe for success includes two essential ingredients: the forgiving and excellent New York public education system of the day, including the stellar faculty at the City College of New York; and Hijuelos' long struggle to decipher his cultural identity.
His parents hailed from Holguin in eastern Cuba. His father, Pascual, is a man of the countryside, his mother, Magdalena, the daughter of a déclassé family of artists and dreamers. In New York, Pascual finds work in the kitchen of the Biltmore Hotel.
At 4, the young Oscar is a fluent Spanish speaker — until he gets sick on a family visit to Cuba with his mother.
The trip provides him with his only concrete memories of the island, as a place of pepper trees and tarantulas.
But when he returns to New York, he's strangely listless. Diagnosed with a kidney disease, he's forced to spend a year separated from his family at a Connecticut hospital. Surrounded by English-speaking nurses, his Spanish withers away.
"[W]hat I would hear for years afterward from my mother," Hijuelos writes, "was that something Cuban had nearly killed me and, in the process of my healing, would turn my own 'Cubanness' into air."
When Oscar returns to West Harlem, he's placed on a strict diet. His peculiar torture is to live for years in an apartment replete with the aroma of fried plantains and spicy pork, while being forbidden to taste any of these Cuban delicacies.
Eventually, young Oscar escapes the attentions of his mother and turns West Harlem into his playground. His description of that community makes for exquisite reading, with everything from LSD to comic books to Puerto Rican conjunto musicians thrown in.
Sadly, a big chunk of the neighborhood is torn down in the mid-1960s to make way for an expansion of Columbia University. And Hijuelos himself is cast adrift after his father, a lifelong heavy drinker, dies suddenly. Years later, Hijuelos first finds writerly inspiration from a playwright who knew a thing or two about the bottle — Tennessee Williams.
He signs up for a writing class at City College. A single walk down the hallway at that school reveals the heady terrain he's entered, though Hijuelos is too callow to appreciate it then.
On his way to look for his first teacher — Donald Barthelme, the short-story writer — he walks past the offices of three professors: Joseph Heller, William S. Burroughs and Francine du Plessix Gray.
Under Barthelme's tutelage, Hijuelos begins to blossom. Eventually, he thinks about writing a novel, a long shot for any writer — and even more so for a young Latino in the 1970s.
"[I]t was a very rare thing to see published work by any members of that primitive tribe from our urban jungles known as los Latinos," Hijuelos writes. "I thought it would be years before I could write anything worthwhile. Even then, who out there would publish it?"
The book he writes, "Our House in the Last World," sells modestly but gets a strong review in the New York Times.
With that, Hijuelos has one foot tenuously in the door. He wins a fellowship in Rome, where he plugs away at snippets of a tale drawing on the lives of the Cuban musicians that circled in his West Harlem orbit.
Scrambling together his fragments, he sells "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love" to legendary editor Jonathan Galassi at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. That disciplined, elegant novel will help bring the modern Latino experience into the mainstream of American letters.
"Mambo Kings" is a commercial and critical hit. But nothing prepares Hijuelos for the phone call he receives from FSG publisher Roger Straus after his whirlwind book tour is over.
"My boy, you've done it… You've won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction."
Moments later, Hijuelos has a vision that closes the circle of his family story and which provides a deeply moving capstone to his memoir.
In the years since "Mambo Kings," the American literary landscape has changed dramatically.
Spanish has flooded American speech, flowing freely and without boundaries in books by Latino writers. And in "Thoughts Without Cigarettes" Hijuelos can seem almost quaint as he provides instant translation to such basic Spanish phrases as "Me entiendes?"
But that's the smallest of quibbles. "Thoughts Without Cigarettes" is a wonderfully intimate epic and also an essential document of the evolution of American literature. It tells the story of an American neighborhood and of the young man who was born there, who looked inside himself and found books waiting to be written.
Tobar is a Times columnist and the author of "The Barbarian Nurseries," a novel to be published in October by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.