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Mambo novel has reality dancing with fiction

Novels have a way of taking on lives of their own. That's what Oscar Hijuelos learned after writing his Pulitzer Prize-winning work The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (Harper & Row, $9.95), the bittersweet reminiscence of a former mambo musician. "I set out to make a fantasy about a real world," Hijuelos told a group gathered during the Frankfurt Book Fair for a reading held to promote the German version of his novel. Hijuelos, a Cuban American, was raised on New York's Upper West Side in the '50s when the mambo craze was at its zenith. "I grew up thinking these musicians were some kind of gods."

For his tribute to that era, Hijuelos invented two brothers, Nestor and Cesar Castillo, brought them up from Cuba to play in the clubs of New York, gave them an LP, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, and, of course, also provided plenty of juicy babes for them to place on their arms, including the luscious Vanna Vane, "splendid in a bursting black sequin-disc-covered number that blinked and wobbled clamorously when she'd walk across a room."

As soon as the book was published, however, Hijuelos' fantasies eerily began to collide with the real world of mambo.

"I kept getting mail from people who told me they had the record, which was quite impossible because it didn't exist," said Hijuelos, "or that they saw the brothers performing in New York. It's also impossible since they came out of my head." One man came up to Hijuelos and told him he had had the great fortune of meeting Cesar Castillo and having a drink with him. "I didn't know what to say to him," admitted Hijuelos. "So I told him I was very happy for him."

Now the song The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love does exist _ records have appeared in Spain and England _ and even Vanna Vane seems to have materialized, Hijuelos said, waving his burgundy tie decorated with a painting of the blond bombshell. Also in the works is a movie which will star some of the real life giants of Afro-Cuban rhythms, including singer Celia Cruz.

And everywhere Hijuelos goes, he finds people who are crazy about mambo.

At the unconventional Frankfurt reading ("It's notat every reading you'll get rum and Coke," said Hijuelos), a German disc jockey, Detlef "Daddy" Schneider, cranked up his vintage record player and treated the group to the sounds of Xavier Cugat and his orchestra, to a slide show of scenes from Cuba and Latin music clubs and to a movie about the New York Latin music scene in the '50s. Schneider, who has a mambo music collection of over 3,000 78-rpm records, presents regular mambo nights at the BrotFabrik, a music club in Frankfurt. "We get 500 people a night dancing the mambo," said "Daddy."

A novelist sits down and in the solitude of his mind invents a world of characters and suddenly finds himself thrust into the real world those invented characters were supposed to inhabit. "This is really wacked out," Hijuelos commented. After writing Mambo Kings Hijuelos met the musical arranger of one of the greatest Latin musicians of all times, known simply as Machito, at his health club in New York. After the novel was published, Hijuelos also heard from Machito's family who objected to his portrayal of the musician. In response the author changed some scenes and renamed one of his characters in the novel's paperback version.

But it was not the big names in Latin music who prompted Hijuelos to write Mambo Kings. Rather he was inspired by the struggling musicians who never really made it big, who had only moments of glory, like Nestor and Cesar who appeared briefly with Ricky Ricardo on an I Love Lucy episode.

Guys like the melancholic elevator operator in his New York apartment building. One day when Hijuelos entered the elevator with a friend's guitar under his arm, the sad-faced operator asked him if he could come up and play it. It turned out he was a soulful singer _ "better than Bruce Springsteen, better than Frank Sinatra, better than Julio Iglesias" _ who had once had a music career back in the Dominican Republic where he had even cut a few records. When he came to New York, he had to give up his musical career: There were just too many Latin musicians competing for jobs.

Much to Hijuelos' own surprise, audiences around the world have identified with the crazy world of rum and Cokes, gyrating torsos and abandoned hopes and dreams he evokes in Mambo Kings "even if they don't understand it." Ironically the more the novelist delves into the particular, the more universal the world he is describing becomes _ and, apparently, the more true-to-life.

Hijuelos' plans? "My next book is going to be just about women," said Hijuelos, who admitted Mambo Kings has been criticized for being "too macho." "It's about a large family of women, like Little Women, but these are Big Women."

It will certainly be interesting to see what kind of mail Hijuelos receives after that project.

Margo Hammond is book editor for the St. Petersburg Times.