'Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise' Educates But Doesn't Entertain Its Readers

Nov 3, 2015
Originally published on November 4, 2015 2:11 pm

Mention Oscar Hijuelos and most people think The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. And why not? It's his gorgeous second novel, the one that won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1990. More novels followed, as well as a memoir, but much of that work carried trace elements of the exuberance and melancholy that made Mambo Kings so distinctive.

Hijuelos' sudden in death in 2013 was one of those literary deaths that genuinely seemed to sadden a lot of readers — his work was beloved for, among other things, its sweet, sad take on the allure of dreaming big in America.

Many years before his death, Hijuelos became fascinated with a subject far removed from Cuban immigrant life in 20th century New York City: namely, the real life 37-year friendship between Mark Twain and the famous Welsh explorer, Henry Morton Stanley — he of the immortal "Dr. Livingston, I presume" line.

Hijuelos spent years researching their lives, eventually writing hundreds of pages about them. An edited version of the manuscript Hijuelos left behind has just been published. Called Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise, the book is ambitious in scope and almost stately in tone. Yet, if you look beyond the Victorian formalities of speech, the whiskers and cravats, there's a ghostly vestige of those boisterous Mambo Kings, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, lurking in the more decorous Twain and Stanley.

Like the Cuban brothers, the young Twain and Stanley were cast adrift in the world to make their own fortunes. (Stanley, in fact, was a penniless orphan when he first arrived in New Orleans as a cabin boy.) As in so many of his books, Hijuelos revels here in the sense of open-ended possibility that being a nobody in America can allow.

Hijuelos, reportedly, wrestled with how to get a handle on this very different kind of tale — so big and grounded in history. He finally settled on the device of a third person omniscient narrator, augmented by fictional diaries and letters written by Twain, Stanley and Stanley's actual wife, the portrait painter Dorothy Tennant.

Stanley's voice and point of view predominate, which is a good thing: Tennant hardly exists beyond her artsy rich-lady stereotype and Twain's one-of-a-kind voice is nearly impossible to imitate without falling into mimicry.

What Hijuelos does imitate successfully about Twain is the picaresque, "on the road" style of his great novels. Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise carries us down rivers, across oceans and deep into darkest jungles; we traipse into workers' cottages in Wales, chieftain's huts in the Congo and Queen Victoria's grand dining room. Along the way, there are many (indeed, all too many) high-minded conversations between Twain and Stanley about slavery, God, the possibility of an Afterlife and romantic love.

The plot here follows the biography of a friendship — from Stanley's chance meeting with the young river pilot Mark Twain, to the end of both men's lives, when Twain died a celebrated author and Stanley found his reputation somewhat tarnished. As the explorer of what became the Belgian Congo, he was blamed for "set[ting] in motion the Colonial Machine."

The most engaging section of the novel is the one that's completely made up: it's an episode that takes Twain and Stanley to Cuba on the eve of The Civil War. The island, we're told, is crowded with Southerners. On their first night together in Havana, Twain tells Stanley that he has:

eavesdropped on much talk about the presumed Southern victory in the event of a war. ... Once that happens, in regard to Cuba itself, it is said that the South will take upon itself what the federal government hasn't been able to do in years past, which is to annex Cuba as a Southern state — to buy it from Spain outright.

That speech clues you in to a major problem — even in that lively section — with Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise: it's chockablock with information that educates but doesn't entertain. Hijuelos hadn't yet found a way to dramatically convey whatever it was that obsessed him about Twain and Stanley's friendship and shape it into a story distinct from the historical record. In the end, Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise is a novel that makes you appreciate — unfortunately, by its absence — the magic that animates Hijuelos' best work.

Copyright 2015 Fresh Air. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Oscar Hijuelos died two years ago of a massive heart attack while playing tennis in New York City's Riverside Park. At the time of his death, Hijuelos had just finished a manuscript for a novel about the long friendship between Mark Twain and the Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley. It was a manuscript that Hijuelos had worked on for more than twelve years. That novel has just been published. It's called "Twain And Stanley Enter Paradise." And book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: Mention Oscar Hijuelos and most people think "The Mambo Kings Play Songs Of Love." And why not? It's his gorgeous second novel, the one that won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1990. More novels followed, as well as a memoir, but much of that work carried trace elements of the exuberance and melancholy that made "Mambo Kings" so distinctive. Hijuelos's sudden death in 2013 was one of those literary deaths that genuinely seemed to sadden a lot of readers. His work was beloved for, among other things, its sweet, sad take on the allure of dreaming big in America.

Many years before his death, Hijuelos became fascinated with a subject far removed from Cuban immigrant life in 20th century New York City, namely, the real-life, 37-year friendship between Mark Twain and the famous Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley - he of the immortal, Dr. Livingston, I presume, line. Hijuelos spent years researching their lives, eventually writing hundreds of pages about them. An edited version of the manuscript Hijuelos left behind has just been published, called "Twain And Stanley Enter Paradise." The book is ambitious in scope and almost stately in tone. Yet if you look beyond the Victorian formalities of speech, the whiskers and cravats, there's a ghostly vestige of those boisterous Mambo Kings, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, lurking in the more decorous Twain and Stanley.

Like the Cuban brothers, the young Twain and Stanley were cast adrift in the world to make their own fortunes. Stanley, in fact, was a penniless orphan when he first arrived in New Orleans as cabin boy. As in so many of his books, Hijuelos revels here in the sense of open-ended possibility that being a nobody in America can allow. Hijuelos reportedly wrestled with how to get a handle on this very different kind of tale, so big and grounded in history. He finally settled on the device of a third-person omniscient narrator, augmented by fictional diaries and letters written by Twain, Stanley and Stanley's actual wife, the portrait painter Dorothy Tennant. Stanley's voice and point of view predominate, which is a good thing. Tennant hardly exists beyond her artsy, rich lady stereotype. And Twain's one-of-a-kind voice is nearly impossible to imitate without falling into mimicry. What Hijuelos does imitate successfully about Twain is the picaresque, on-the-road style of his great novels. "Twain And Stanley Enter Paradise" carries us down rivers, across oceans and deep into darkest jungles. We traipse into worker's cottages in Wales, chieftain's huts in the Congo and Queen Victoria's grand dining room. Along the way, there are many - indeed, all too many - high-minded conversations between Twain and Stanley about slavery, God, the possibility of an afterlife and romantic love.

The plot here follows the biography of a friendship, from Stanley's chance meeting with the young river pilot Mark Twain to the end of both men's lives when Twain died a celebrated author and Stanley found his reputation somewhat tarnished. As the explorer of what became the Belgian Congo, he was blamed for setting in motion the colonial machine. The most engaging section of the novel is the one that's completely made up. It's an episode that takes Twain and Stanley to Cuba on the eve of the Civil War. The island, we're told, is crowded with Southerners. On their first night together in Havana, Twain tells Stanley that he has eavesdropped on much talk about the presumed Southern victory in the event of a war. Once that happens, in regard to Cuba itself, it is said that the South will take upon itself what the federal government hasn't been able to do in years past, which is to annex Cuba as a Southern state, to buy it from Spain outright.

That speech clues you in to a major problem, even in that lively section, with "Twain And Stanley Enter Paradise." It's chockablock with information that educates, but doesn't entertain. Hijuelos hadn't yet found a way to dramatically convey whatever it was that obsessed him about Twain and Stanley's friendship and shape it into a story distinct from the historical record. In the end, "Twain And Stanley Enter Paradise" is a novel that makes you appreciate, unfortunately by its absence, the magic that animates Hijuelos's best work.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed a posthumously published novel by Oscar Hijuelos called "Twain And Stanley Enter Paradise."

I'm Terry Gross, and I want to close today's show by remembering David Karpoff, who was very important in my life and in the life of FRESH AIR. In fact, he created the show and came up with the name when he was the program director of WHYY back in 1973. FRESH AIR was very different then. It was a free-form interview and music show, broadcast only in the Philadelphia area, every weekday afternoon from 2 until 5. There was at least one other host before me, and David had sometimes hosted the show himself. He hired me 40 years ago in 1975 after FRESH AIR host Judy Blank moved to New York for a different job. David took a big chance on me. Although I was already co-hosting a similar program at WBFO in Buffalo where David had formally been the program director, I was only 24, and I was pretty inexperienced.

When I came to Philadelphia, David gave me the freedom to do what I wanted with FRESH AIR. And he offered his support and friendship at a time I really needed it. I had a daily three-hour show to fill in a city I was unfamiliar with, far away from old friends and family. David only stayed a couple of more years at the station, then left to study at the American Film Institute. Over the years, we eventually fell out of touch, except for occasional phone calls. But when he got sick, a mutual friend, Janice (ph), who lives in Pennsylvania, brought him to Philly so he could have a weekend getaway and we could spend time together. He loved opera, so we took him to a movie theater to see the Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD theater cast of "La Boheme." He spent part of the opera in tears. "La Boheme" was the first opera he was taken to as a child. And I can only imagine what was going through his mind. That weekend, a year and a half ago, was the last time I saw him. He died last Tuesday. And I'm grateful for that visit, for his friendship and for how he hired me and gave me a career at a time I was unsure if I'd ever be able to make a living doing what I love to do. Thank you, David. We'll close with music from the Metropolitan Opera production that we saw together of "La Boheme."

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA "LA BOHEME")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.