The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz, Riverhead Books, 2007, 335 pp
Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize winning first novel sat in one of my many TBR piles for almost two years. I was tantalized by the white cover with the red woodblock image dripping and spattering its color across the title. I had read reviews and interviews with the author about his eleven years of writer's block following the wild reception of his first book, a collection of short stories entitled Drown. The first issue of "Poets & Writers" I ever read had his picture on the cover. None of this prepared me for the impact the novel would have on me.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is one of the best novels I have read in a long time. The fresh unique voice, the huge characters, the horrific details of life under the dictator Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, juxtaposed with the humor and street smart dialogue; all these factors, layered into a plot that is really the history of a family, blew my mind.
Oscar himself, grandson of a famous wealthy Dominican doctor who fell out of favor (a very dangerous thing in Trujillo's day), is an obese nerd in the Dominican ghetto of Paterson, NJ. He is obsessed with food, girls, sci fi, cartoons and fantasy. As a teenager his greatest fear is that he will die a virgin, something no self-respecting Dominican man should be after the age of fourteen or so. Not that Oscar has any self respect.
He has a missing father; a demented, terminally ill but beautiful mother; a doting protective sister and a great aunt back in Santo Domingo. He reads sci fi and fantasy books incessantly, when he is not holed up playing Dungeons & Dragons or engaged in marathon sessions of writing his four-book space opera opus. Running like a virulent virus through his life is the fuku, the ancient curse (first named by African slaves brought to Dominican shores), that has doomed Oscar's family to all manner of violent tragedy. But the audacity of Oscar's hope is that someday one of the thousands of females he has fallen in love with will love him back (and have sex with him.)
As Oscar's life careens toward what you know from the title can only be his doom, in spite of the best efforts of least three people to protect him, you also get a brief wondrous history of the Dominican Republic, a history that is virtually unknown to the average American. Diaz throws in plenty of Dominican Spanish, both formal and slang, which I confess that, not knowing Spanish, I skipped over while feeling slightly annoyed that I was missing part of the story. I could have used my Spanish/English dictionary but I did not. One reason is that Diaz's prose is propelled by an energy that made me long for the next page, but another is my American arrogance when confronted with a foreign language.
In an interview with Junot Diaz by NPR's Terry Gross, he explains that he put the Spanish in there, not so much to criticize American insularity, but to create for the reader some of the experience of the immigrant who comes to the United States not knowing English and has to go around not understanding huge chunks of what he hears and reads. I get it.
I can't find anything significant to criticize. Diaz probably breaks all kinds of rules and personally I am in favor of that sort of daring, especially when it pays off so brilliantly. Reading the book was like hearing Bob Dylan for the first time. I want more: more novels by Junot Diaz and more novels like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
(This book is available in hardcover or paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)