I first read Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead) when it came out in 2007 for a selfish reason – I was excited the main character, Oscar de León, had the same last name as me.
I reread it again this year and rediscovered the awesomeness of the book.
Most of the book is narrated by smart-ass Yunior de las Casas, who also appears in Díaz’s other books, Drown and This Is How You Lose Her. As with those books, Oscar Wao’s big strength is Díaz’s voice, in which the characters tell their stories as though they are talking to you over a beer.
The focus is on Oscar, the youngest son of a single mother who has immigrated from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey. He loves science fiction and hasn’t kissed a girl. His nerdiness may stem a family curse – or fukú – his family has been under since Oscar’s grandfather offended Rafael Trujillo, their homeland’s dictator.
“It seemed to Oscar that from the moment (his classmate) Maritza dumped him – Shazam! – his life started going down the tubes. Over the next couple of years he grew fatter and fatter. Early adolescence hit him especially hard, scrambling his face into nothing you could call cute, splotching his skin with zits, making him self-conscious; and his interest – in Genres! – which nobody has said boo about before, suddenly became synonymous with being a loser with a capital L. Couldn’t make friends for the life of him, too dorky, too shy, and (if the kids from his neighborhood are to be believed) too weird.”
Yunior goes on to describe Oscar’s further exploits as they room together in college. Just when Oscar may have found love, the curse comes back to haunt him.
The book put me through many emotions. I laughed out loud many times, especially during the opening pages. I nearly cried as I read the portion narrated by Lola, Oscar’s sister, as she recounts the struggles with her verbally abusive mother, Beli – although this passage, when she runs away from home, made me laugh:
“I kept waiting to run into my family posting up flyers of me on the boardwalk … but the closest I came to any of that was someone had put up for a cat they lost. That’s white people for you. They lost a cat and it’s an all-points bulletin, but we Dominicans, we lost a daughter and we might not even cancel our appointment at the salon.”
I also was fascinated by the sections about the lives of Beli and her parents in their native country – stuff I didn’t learn, as the book says, during “your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history.” Díaz weaves in other bits of Dominican history seamlessly – a minor character always seems to have a connection with someone in the Trujillo regime.
Some caveats: Some readers may be offended by the vulgar language and frequent use of the “N” word. Non-Spanish speakers may need a dictionary to keep up with the Spanish phrases. And many readers, such as myself, may not get the references to The Lord of the Rings (a series I’ve successfully avoided all my life).
But don’t let those things deter you from reading the book. Even if you don’t get the Gollum reference or a Spanish phrase, Oscar Wao is a brilliant book that successfully combines history, tragedy and humor.
Source: I check this book out of the library.
This book is part of my series of classic Latino novels. Up next: Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz.