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'Twain & Stanley' Finds Magic In An Unlikely Friendship

In the late 1800's, it would've been tough to find two men more famous than Mark Twain and Sir Henry Morton Stanley.

Twain was Twain — author, essayist, humorist, irascible old coot. In the public eye, on stage and in the newspapers, he was America's ur-curmudgeon. A man who spun quips into gold. On the street and in the drawings rooms of the age, he was more — an ex-riverboat pilot (which, at that time, had to be the second-coolest job around) and an abolitionist, a journalist and a lover of cigars, whiskey and mustaches. Stanley was a writer, too, but better known as an explorer (the first-coolest job, natch) and the man who rescued the missionary David Livingstone in Africa. (That quote, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" That's where that comes from — the alleged line spoken by Stanley upon discovering Livingstone in Zanzibar.)

Today, Twain is better known (because Stanley was twitchy, bad in public, and got some muck attached to his name by history after he did his part to ravage — with colonialism and disease — large swaths of Africa in the name of King Leopold II of Belgium), but at the time, they were both Apollo-astronaut-famous. And also, they were friends.

Oscar Hijuelos's new novel, Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise (published posthumously after his sudden death in 2013) is about that friendship — the strange beginnings of it (they met in their youth, on the deck of a steamboat, while both were still in the process of becoming the men they would eventually be), the muddy middle (money problems, women problems, legacy problems born of the political views that divided but never quite separated them), and the way it ended with Stanley's death 37 years later.

It is, of course, a lie. A historical fiction, based on a decade's worth of research, but done with Hijuelos putting words in the mouths of these two great lions. Like Epitaph -- published earlier this year by Mary Doria Russell and dealing with the lead-up to and fallout from the gunfight at the OK Corral — Twain & Stanley is an attempt at recapturing a moment in American history (the meeting of these two vital figures) and tracking the ripples of it down through the years.

It's strange to read a powerfully-voiced writer (who won the Pulitzer for his evocative, almost dreamlike evocations of Cuba in The Mambo Kings Play Songs Of Love) trying to get his tongue around the tone and temper of an autodidact from a Welsh workhouse trying to pass himself off as a Southern gentleman (or, for that matter, as Mark-effing-Twain), but it's a credit to Hijuelos' mockingbird abilities that this question is primarily an academic one. Dive straight in, ignoring whatever semantic or intellectual weirdness may come of comparing apples to toaster ovens, and he pulls it off with barely a hitch.

What's more, Hijuelos spins a great tale, rich with details of New Orleans, St Louis, the Arkansas river bottoms, New York, London and elsewhere at a point in history where it seemed like everything in the world was changing every single day. It stumbles here and there owing to architectural concerns — the whole thing stitched together out of invented manuscript pages, journal entries, correspondences between Twain, Stanley, Dorothy Tennant (who became Stanley's wife and, possibly, a secret love interest of Twain) and others, plus a fair amount of plain omniscient narration to fill the gaps. In many places, any sense of narrative flow is broken by Hijuelos bouncing in and out of different heads, jumping from city to city, place to place and year to year.

But when he digs his fingers into something good and lets his chosen pony run a little? There's just a kind of gorgeous magic to the disparate but parallel lives he is charting. It's odd enough that these two men ever met in the first place. Stranger still that they became friends and nearly inseparable companions over the course of nearly four decades. But Hijuelos's titular notion of paradise — of Twain looking back over his shoulder to find it in his perfect boyhood and Stanley forever scraping to find it in a family of his own, and some solitude at the end of the path — is what carries the novel through all the rough construction. Twain and Stanley spend their lives looking in opposite directions for the same thing, meeting somewhere in the middle to encourage and comfort each other, to argue about slavery and colonialism and the price of fame.

And if someone had to be there to bring the two of them together on the page, then Hijuelos, who spent a decade living with Twain and Stanley in his head, was a fine man to have in that (imaginary) room.

Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

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Jason Sheehan