‘To begin with, a writer makes books,” says the world-renowned American writer to a tony British crowd in Covent Garden. “In that we are like undertakers; as we put things into places where they will never be touched or changed.”
So begins a poignant address by Mark Twain as imagined by novelist Oscar Hijuelos in “Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise,” which explores the long friendship between Twain, born Samuel Clemens, and Henry Morton Stanley, the Welsh-born explorer/journalist who, as John Rowlands, emigrated to America at 18 and later achieved a global celebrity after tracking down missionary David Livingstone near Lake Tanganyika.
How curious it is for an accomplished novelist of one generation to play the ventriloquist for another, manipulating his own voice in service of literary voices of long ago. Curious, sometimes thrilling, and plangently reverberant in the instance of Hijuelos, who was still putting the “things” of this decades-spanning historical novel in their intended places when he died of a heart attack in 2013.
The narrative we are left with provides an unexpectedly apt epitaph for Hijuelos, whose populous evocations of the Cuban-American immigrant experience had the electric immediacy of pop-up sagas for grown-ups, percolating with vibrant period minutiae and a 3-D-like eroticism that seemed to jump off the page. Although “Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise” eschews the latter and shifts its geographical gaze far beyond Hijuelos’s usual New York/Havana axis, this last work channels the author’s Pulitzer-winning “The Mambo Kings Plays Songs of Love” and “The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien” in its epic reach and “Mr. Ives’ Christmas” in its thematic crosscurrents of faith and loss.
Where “Mambo Kings” traced the intertwining trajectory of two musician brothers, his final novel follows the divergent paths of its titular “brothers in letters,” who meet in their formative years on a Mississippi riverboat that Clemens is piloting. Stanley eventually enlists Clemens on a sojourn to Cuba in search of Henry Stanley, an itinerant river merchant from whom the younger Stanley took his nom de plume in the expectation (misplaced, as it turned out) of becoming his adopted son.
Bonding initially over their mutual ardor for literature, the pair are otherwise a textbook study in the yin and yang that can make for enduring, if certainly prickly, alliances. On the lecture circuit, Clemens is charismatic and in his element, while Stanley is stiff and ill at ease (a shortcoming that doesn’t prevent him from making repeated bids for the House of Commons). Stanley is a moralizing defender of God’s word, Clemens a self-described “reluctant atheist.” Stanley, abandoned by his mother at birth, still feels the sting of a Dickensian boyhood marked by toil and abuse, while Clemens revels in idyllic childhood memories. “If there’s a heaven,” he muses, “it’s behind us, in early youth.”
Most tryingly, perhaps, Clemens’s impassioned anti-imperialism puts him at loggerheads with the “colonial machine” set in motion by Stanley’s forays into Africa, popularized in his books such as “In Darkest Africa.” If Hijuelos has tended to veer away from the overtly political in his works, his sympathy for Clemens’s impatience with Stanley’s complicity in the cruel expansionism of King Leopold II is palpable: “In his well-protected shell,” Clemens said of his friend, “he hardly grasps that the natives, whose lot he might have sought to improve, are being, enslaved, mutilated, murdered at will.”
The female figure who dominates “Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise” is Stanley’s eventual wife, Dorothy Tennant, an aristocrat portrait artist who delighted in painting society and ragamuffins alike. Comely, gregarious, and perceptive, Lady Stanley provides a discreet object of desire for both her husband, whose carnal energies are deflated by chronic malaria and gastritis, and Clemens, whose wife Livy is likewise bedridden with midlife maladies. Future literature students will no doubt attempt dissertations on shifting notions of masculinity in Hijuelos’s fiction: the virile romantics of “Mambo Kings” and “Beautiful Maria of My Soul” vs. Clemens and Stanley, the swaggering humorist in dandy-white suits and the intrepid jungle adventurer who faints repeatedly at a reception in his honor.
Given the paucity of actual documentation surrounding the men’s friendship, Hijuelos is compelled to relay his story through varying modes of mediation, all entirely counterfeit: letters, journals, notebooks. While we marvel at the author’s resourcefulness, the herky jerky flow of perspectives results in an all-over-the-place-ness that curtails the narrative’s momentum and power. At day’s end, “Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise” delivers as an erudite vaudeville of turn-of-the-century superstars (Bram Stoker! Gladstone! Conan Doyle!) and a self-effacing swan song for a gifted novelist who, in modulating his singular voice to harmonize with those of his fabled subjects, seems to be meditating upon his own place in the pantheon.
By Oscar Hijuelos
Grand Central, 465 pp., $28
Jan Stuart is the author of “The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.’’