The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
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Gabriel García Márquez:
Love in the Time of Cholera

David Foster Wallace:
Infinite Jest

Margaret Atwood:
The Handmaid's Tale

Toni Morrison:

Jonathan Franzen:
The Corrections

Don DeLillo:

Zadie Smith:
White Teeth

Roberto Bolaño:

Mark Z. Danielewski:
House of Leaves

Cormac McCarthy:
Blood Meridian

Philip Roth:
American Pastoral

Jonathan Lethem:
The Fortress of S0litude

Haruki Murakami:
Kafka on the Shore

Edward P. Jones:
The Known  World

Ian McEwan:

Michael Chabon:
The Amazing Adventures of
Kavalier & Clay

Philip Roth:
The Human Stain

Mario Vargas Llosa:
The Feast of the Goat

Marilynne Robinson:

David Mitchell:
Cloud Atlas

José Saramago:

Jennifer Egan:
A Visit from the Goon Sqad

W. G. Sebald:

Jeffrey Eugenides
The Marriage Plot

Donna Tartt:
The Secret History

Michael Ondaatje:
The English Patient

Saul Bellow:

A.S. Byatt:

Umberto Eco:
Foucault's Pendulum

Cormac McCarthy:
The Road

David Foster Wallace:
The Pale King

J.K. Rowling:
Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone

Arundhati Roy:
The God of Small Things

Roberto Bolaño:
The Savage Detectives

Paul Auster:
The New York Trilogy

Per Petterson:
Out Stealing Horses

Ann Patchett:
Bel Canto

Ben Okri:
The Famished Road

Joseph O'Neill:

Haruki Murakami:
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Marisha Pessl:
Special Topics in Calamity

Jonathan Franzen:

Colm Tóibín:
The Master

Denis Johnson:
Tree of Smoke

Richard Russo:
Empire Falls

Alice Munro:

Martin Amis:
London Fields

Mark Haddon:
The Curious Incident of the
Dog in the Night-Time

John Banville:
The Sea

Chuck Palahniuk
Fight Club

Jeffrey Eugenides:

Junot Diaz:
The Brief Wondrous Life of
Oscar Wao

Aravind Adiga:
The White Tiger

Tim O'Brien:
The Things They Carried

Irvine Welsh

Tobias Wolff:
Old School

Tim Winton:

David Foster Wallace:

Oscar Hijuelos:
The Mambo Kings Play
Songs of Love

More to come

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Great Books Guide
Conceptual Fiction
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's personal web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

American Fiction Notes
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The Elegant Variation
Dana Gioia
The Literary Saloon
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Fractious Fiction
The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
, Ted Gioia reviews The
Mambo Kings Play Songs of
by Oscar Hijuelos.
The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love
by Oscar Hijuelos

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

A few years ago, I enjoyed the Warholian effect of television
exposure when, quite unexpectedly, my name was uttered on a
major network TV show.  The star of this popular medical drama
boasts, during a lull in the action: "I'm reading Ted Gioia's
of Jazz
." And there it went—whooshhh!—my moment of mass-
market visibility, over almost as soon as it began.  

But what Warhold didn't tell you is that
even the briefest snippet of TV fame
lives over and over again—on reruns.  
I don't pay much attention to television
(and have never even seen the TV show
in question), but whenever this episode
is re-broadcast, I get emails from people
who watched it.  I hate to admit it, but
this chance decision by a TV screenplay
writer probably generates more sales
of my book than all the reviews put

The protagonists of Oscar Hijuelos's
Pulitzer Prize-winning novel
The Mambo
Kings Play Songs of Love
enjoy a similar
intersection with TV notoriety. Cesar and
Nestor Castillo, two Cuban musicians, get a few minutes of exposure
on the
I Love Lucy show, where they perform a song alongside TV
star Desi Arnaz.  For a short while their band, The Mambo Kings,
enjoys more prominent gigs at classy hotels and ballrooms, and
can charge a few hundred dollars more for performances.  They
release an album that sells 10,000 copies and go on a cross-
country tour.  

But the sitcom fame soon fades, and tragedy takes its place.  
The melancholy trumpeter Nestor dies in an automobile accident
while returning from a performance, and his older brother Cesar
is overcome with a sense of guilt, fearing that he may have been
responsible for his sibling's death. Cesar can't seem to get his life,
or music career, back on track after this loss of his closest family
member and colleague.  He struggles to find his bearings, working
for a time as a merchant sailor and later as an apartment building
superintendent.  His few moments of release come through booze,
women and, with less and less frequency, music.

But the brothers enjoy a kind of eternal youthfulness, if only in the
form of reruns in syndication.  Again and again, the siblings knock
on the door of the Lucille and Ricky Ricardo residence, get invited
in, and a few minutes later show up with the Cuban TV star on the
bandstand to perform the song "Beautiful Maria of My Soul."  As
the years pass by, the contrast between the youthful Mambo Kings
on screen and the quasi-grotesque reality, one brother dead and the
other succumbing to the most self-destructive impulses, grows
more marked and charged with pathos.  

Other novelists have written about musicians and bands, but
Hijuelos is especially skilled at capturing the magical, trans-
formative power of song.  This quality, bordering on the
irrational, somehow manages to turn a few people into stars,
others into mere stargazers.   Nestor Castillo is ambivalent about
this power and, before his untimely death, still laments his lost
love and simpler life back in Cuba.  Cesar, in contrast, draws his
self-esteem and pride from what music can give him—influential
friends, good times and, above all, accommodating female fans.   

But which is the real Mambo King?  Is it the flamboyant Cesar
on stage, with his flashy outfits and fancy dance steps?  Or is it
the brooding Cesar who retires to his basement retreat with a
bottle of whiskey and a growing list of regrets?   Give Hijuelos
credit for not trying to answer this question, and it's not clear
that even his protagonists understand where they are heading or
what they really want out of life.  Much of the appeal of
Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love
comes from this stark contrast
between the private melancholy off-stage and the adrenaline jolt
of on-stage glory.  

I'm tempted to describe this as the tension between fantasy and
reality, yet part of the magic of music stems from its sporadic
and unpredictable ability to breach the border between the two.  
A few superstars in our midst are empowered, by their songs, to
turn their fantasies into reality, and much of our fascination with
these celebrities draws on our voyeuristic desire to see how such
hubris is rewarded (or punished), whether fame empowers or
degrades. Hijuelos lets us watch this playing out at a micro level,
and learn what that tiny Warholian dose of notoriety does, both
to the brother who seizes it and the one who looks on with

Hijuelos published this novel back in 1989, before the rise of
the Internet, and in a strange way the kind of disjunction between
mass media image and private life he explored in such detail is now
an element of everybody's life, not just celebrities but anyone old
enough to click and tweet.  Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and a host
of other web interfaces now serve as platforms for this carefully
crafted virtual world of the individual as web protagonist—what
J.G. Ballard predicted in 1977 when he anticipated the day when
"each of us will be both star and supporting player.  Every one of
our actions during the day, across the entire spectrum of domestic
life, will be instantly recorded…In the evening we will sit back
to scan the rushes, selected by a computer trained to pick out only
our best profiles, our wittiest dialogue, our most affecting
expressions filmed through the kindest filters."

This is the modern breed of inauthenticity, a distinctly new kind
of existential dilemma requiring technology for its manifestation.  
A web connection makes it possible for us, but for Cesar and
Nestor Castillo a black-and-white TV set was all it took.  As a
result the key takeaway of this novel, the heady mixture of
exhilaration and angst experienced by the Mambo King, set in
motion by a 1950s sitcom, hasn’t aged or gone out-of-date—just
like those two brothers knocking on the door of the Ricardo
residence.  In other words, Hijuelos may have been one of the
first to discover a new kind of sadness, a melancholy possible
only when we gaze longingly at our mass media alter ego, that
alluring fabrication who leads a life we have now lost, or perhaps
never enjoyed in the first place.