Oscar Hijuelos’ Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise

Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise

I receive advance reading copies (ARCs) from publishers for review purposes from time to time and I always make it a practice to read them in order of publication date.  I do this so my reviews will be as timely as possible and roughly coincide with each book’s release.  So when I finished The Early Stories of Truman Capote (November 23, 2015), I flipped to the next ARC on the list and came up with Oscar Hijuelos’ Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise.  Okay . . . so . . . the book I read immediately preceding the Capote collection was Lynn Cullen’s Twain’s End.  Were the book gods really going to make me read two Twain-based novels nearly right in a row?   Apparently so.  If I weren’t so damned OCD about my hard and fast publication date rule, I would have just put the Hijuelos aside for a month or so and come back to it later, but I’m a little anal about these things so I hunkered down and prepared to dive back into the world of Samuel Clemens.

If you read my November 11, 2015 post on Lynn Cullen’s book, you know that her Twain was a rancorous dude not much interested in giving a rodent’s posterior about anyone but himself.  So I wondered what kind of light Oscar Hijuelos was going to shine on the old coot.  A radically different one as it turns out.

Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise orbits around the actual, lifelong friendship of Mark Twain and Sir Henry Morton Stanley, controversial African explorer and supposed utterer of the legendary “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” line.  Twain comes off more like the revered figure most of us imagine, a better family man and friend than the one Lynn Cullen would have us know.  He’s a relatively considerate pal, a devoted husband and father, and just an all-around much nicer bloke to hang out with.  However, Stanley, not Twain, is the real star of the show here, as his voice is the principal one Hijuelos uses to narrate his sprawling tale.  The novel spans at least 50 or so years and we’re with Stanley every step of the way in his life, beginning with his arrival in New Orleans as a penniless orphan from Wales, to his first meeting with Twain on a Mississippi River steamer (Twain then being known only as Samuel Clemens and prior to his immense literary fame), to the sweltering jungles of both Cuba and Africa and finally to pastoral England.  We even backtrack a little to Stanley’s childhood before his abandonment by his mother and his eventual orphandom (okay, so the jury’s still out on whether “orphandom” is actually a word).

Hijuelos employs several narrative devices to relay the intertwining stories of Twain and Stanley.  At times he writes in the third person, giving the novel the feel of a Stanley biography instead of a fictional interpretation, and I frankly had to remind myself on a multitude of occasions that this wasn’t a biography.  Other times the epistolary voice takes over in the form of letters between Stanley and Twain and correspondence exchanged between Twain and Dorothy Tennant, Stanley’s portraitist wife.  Yet other chapters are set forth in the first person as either Stanley’s or Dorothy’s journal entries.  This constant tone shifting has the whole thing coming off as slightly schizophrenic, and truly the thing works best when it’s simply Stanley doing the talking from the pages of his diary.

For those expecting Hijuelos’ usual exuberant, Cuban-American themed fare, Twain & Stanley is a divergence, although the two men do venture together into Cuba searching for Stanley’s potential adoptive father (NOTE:  The Cuba jaunt is completely fictional, not based on any actual trip taken by the pair, although much of the book is rooted in the facts of their relationship as best could be gleaned from Hijuelos’ extensive research).  In all fairness, the author died unexpectedly before he ever submitted Twain & Stanley for publication so one can only presume that he didn’t get the chance to further shape, polish and winnow down his manuscript prior to his death.  According to his wife’s afterword, Hijuelos had been fascinated by Henry Morton Stanley since his teenage years, and the research and travel that form the underpinnings of this book were a labor of love that spanned more than twelve years.  You have to wonder though, had Hijuelos lived, would he be completely satisfied with the rambling Twain & Stanley we’re left with or would he still have some tweaking to do?

Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Grand Central Publishing via NetGalley.  I would like to thank the publisher for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

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