A WRITER'S WIT
My Book World
Cigarettes: A Memoir. New York:
I made few annotations in this book largely because I found it so engrossing I didn’t want to stop to write a note. I’ll do that another time. Mr. Hijuelos is a unique character among writers, among human beings. He is a Cuban-American who suffers a disease in childhood that takes him away from his family for such a long period that he forgets much of the Spanish he’s learned. He suffers his entire life because he cannot fully communicate with his own mother whose English is poor. He suffers from his own self-deprecation, turning down Donald Barthelme’s offer to help Hijuelos enter the graduate writing program at Iowa University. He is also stunned when he later wins highly touted awards, among them the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. Hijuelos shares all the pain and sorrow that other writers may suffer: loss of his father, the slings and arrows of racism (in a very odd twist because of his blond hair and light skin, not being dark enough for some, too Latino for others), initial failures as a fledgling writer. But if he suffers, he also experiences particular joys: being told by those who should know that he has a unique talent, a two-year grant that allows him to live and write in Rome, serious relationships with three different women. Perhaps the title, Thoughts Without Cigarettes, is prescient of his death in 2013. His father died in his mid-fifties of an apparent heart attack. At the age of sixty-two, Hijuelos would drop dead from the same while playing tennis. If he quit smoking the series of cigarettes he’d begun to consume in his youth, it probably did not help him. Sad. It seems that he was a writer’s writer in that he never wrote for fame, often lived from hand to mouth for his art, was not even that impressed with the accolades once the initial euphoria passed because he knew deep down that he once again had to sit his ass in a chair and write, not to make a living, but to make sense of his life.
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction