Writers have been known to embellish facts for dramatic purposes. A possible embellishment provides part of the drama of Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise, the final novel by Oscar Hijuelos. This posthumous work, set in the late 19th and early 20th century, is more restrained than previous Hijuelos books, including the Pulitzer Prize winner The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. And the protagonists are as un-Hijuelos as you can get: Mark Twain and Henry Morton Stanley, the Welsh explorer who achieved fame for his search for David Livingstone.
Three years after Stanley’s death in 1904, his wife, artist Dorothy Tennant, discovers a manuscript that contradicts his official biography. In the hidden version, he wrote that Henry Hope Stanley, “the merchant trader from New Orleans whom he considered his second father,” had not vanished during a visit to Cuba in 1861, and that the young Stanley had traveled there with Samuel Clemens (Twain) to search for him. Tennant asks Clemens: Is it true? What follows is a chronicle of the decades-long friendship between these two very different men.
Hijuelos was still working on this novel at the time of his death in 2013, and Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise is clearly an unfinished manuscript. Descriptions go on for too long, and dialogue often sounds written rather than spoken. Despite its flaws, however, the book entertains. Hijuelos beautifully dramatizes Stanley’s discomfort with women and his struggles with celebrity. Clemens is the swaggering Twain of legend—until the moving passages that depict the deaths of his eldest daughter and beloved wife. And the scenes from Stanley’s final months, when he has trouble recognizing Dorothy, are heartbreaking.
Late in the novel, Clemens says that books will last as long as there are people to read them. One could add that, as long as people read books, they will read books by Oscar Hijuelos. In its better moments, this novel shows you why.