In 1990, the New York-born Mr. Hijuelos (pronounced ee-HWAY-lohss) became the first novelist with roots in Latin America to be awarded the Pulitzer. He often explored the uprooted lives of Cuban immigrants in his eight novels, but he resisted being aligned with any formal artistic movement and took no overt political stance on the thorny issue of relations with Cuba.
Instead, Mr. Hijuelos chose to build panoramic tales around the messy lives of his characters, with vivid depictions of romance and sorrow and the mood of the times. He had published one novel before “The Mambo Kings,” a sprawling account of the changing fortunes of two brothers, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, who left Cuba to lead a high-energy band during the mambo craze of the early 1950s.
“I wrote it to acquaint people with that world,” Mr. Hijuelos told the Boston Globe in 1990. “I wrote it as a long poem to musicians everywhere.”
A onetime guitarist, Mr. Hijuelos said he listened to mambo, an energetic style of Cuban dance music, while writing his novel.
“The music began taking over,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “I became fascinated by the lives of people who had this great talent, but then took different directions when they bumped into tougher realities here in America.”
The book became a literary phenomenon, translated into more than 30 languages, and was noteworthy for its steamy descriptions of seduction and the long, dance-filled nights when music and the possibilities of romance never seemed to end.
“By turns street-smart and lyrical, impassioned and reflective,” New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani wrote, “ ‘The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love’ is a rich and provocative book — a moving portrait of a man, his family, a community and a time.”
The book deliberately crossed the lines of fiction and fact, as the brothers in Mr. Hijuelos’s novel appeared alongside their hero, the Cuban-born bandleader Desi Arnaz, on “I Love Lucy.” In real life, a female musician sued Mr. Hijuelos for defamation, claiming an unsympathetic portrait in the book was based on her life. The suit was dismissed.
The novel was made into a 1992 movie, “The Mambo Kings,” starring Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas, but the film could not duplicate Mr. Hijuelos’s lush, musical prose style as he told a compelling story of human longing and failure.
“Wives were charmed by the flirtatious splendor that was Cesar Castillo,” he wrote. “He’d come down off the stage and dance with a dozen different women during a single song, his warm-blooded, thick hands taking the woman by the waist and spinning her like a falling flower . . . Cesar would sing about the murmuring seas, the mournful moons, scornful, mocking, deceptive, cool, playful, entrancing love. Eyes closed, his face a mask of thoughtful passion.”