Junot Díaz’s “Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is a wondrous, not-so-brief first novel that is so original it can only be described as Mario Vargas Llosa meets “Star Trek” meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West. It is funny, street-smart and keenly observed, and it unfolds from a comic portrait of a second-generation Dominican geek into a harrowing meditation on public and private history and the burdens of familial history. An extraordinarily vibrant book that’s fueled by adrenaline-powered prose, it’s confidently steered through several decades of history by a madcap, magpie voice that’s equally at home talking about Tolkien and Trujillo, anime movies and ancient Dominican curses, sexual shenanigans at Rutgers University and secret police raids in Santo Domingo.
THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO
By Junot Díaz
340 pages. Riverhead Books. $24.95.
Mr. Díaz, the author of a critically acclaimed collection of short stories published in 1996 (“Drown”), writes in a sort of streetwise brand of Spanglish that even the most monolingual reader can easily inhale: lots of flash words and razzle-dazzle talk, lots of body language on the sentences, lots of David Foster Wallace-esque footnotes and asides. And he conjures with seemingly effortless aplomb the two worlds his characters inhabit: the Dominican Republic, the ghost-haunted motherland that shapes their nightmares and their dreams; and America (a k a New Jersey), the land of freedom and hope and not-so-shiny possibilities that they’ve fled to as part of the great Dominican diaspora.
Oscar, Mr. Díaz’s homely homeboy hero, is “not one of those Dominican cats everybody’s always going on about — he wasn’t no home-run hitter or a fly bachatero, not a playboy” with a million hot girls on the line. No, Oscar is a fat, self-loathing dweeb and aspiring science fiction writer, who dreams of becoming “the Dominican Tolkien.” He’s one of those kids who tremble with fear during gym class and use “a lot of huge-sounding nerd words like indefatigable and ubiquitous” when talking to kids who could barely finish high school. He moons after girls who won’t give him the time of day and enters and leaves college a sad virgin. He wears “his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber”; he “couldn’t have passed for Normal if he’d wanted to.”
Two of this novel’s narrators, Oscar’s beautiful sister, Lola — a “Banshees-loving punk chick,” who becomes “one of those tough Jersey dominicanas” who order men about like houseboys — and Yunior, Oscar’s college roommate and Lola’s onetime boyfriend, do their best to try to get him to shape up. They exhort him to eat less and exercise more, to leave his dorm room and venture out into the world.
Oscar makes a halfhearted effort and then tells Yunior to leave him alone. He goes back to his writing, his day-dreams, his suicidal thoughts. Yunior (who seems very much like the Yunior who appeared in some of Mr. Díaz’s short stories) begins to think that Oscar may be living under a family curse, “a high-level fukú” not unlike the curse on the House of Atreus, which has doomed him, like his mother, to lasting unhappiness in love.
In due course we also hear the story of Oscar and Lola’s mother, Beli, a tough, tough-talking woman whose hard-nosed street cred is rooted in a childhood of almost unimaginable pain and loss: her wealthy father, tortured and incarcerated by the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo’s thugs; her mother, run over by a truck after her husband’s imprisonment; her two sisters, dead in freak, suspicious accidents.
The orphaned Beli herself was abused and beaten before being rescued by her father’s kindly cousin, and as a teenager she has a disastrous affair with a charismatic and dangerous man known as the Gangster — one of Trujillo’s men, who happens to be married to Trujillo’s sister. That affair culminates in a savage beating in the cane fields, a beating that nearly ends Beli’s life and that will propel her toward a new life in exile in the United States.
Mr. Díaz writes about the Trujillo era of the Dominican Republic with the same authority he writes about contemporary New Jersey, the slangy, kinetic energy of his prose proving to be a remarkably effective tool for capturing the absurdities of the human condition, be they the true horrors of living in a dictatorship that can erase a person or a family on a whim, or the self-indulgent difficulties of being a college student coping with issues of weight and self-esteem.
Here is Mr. Díaz writing about Trujillo: “Homeboy dominated Santo Domingo like it was his very own private Mordor; not only did he lock the country away from the rest of the world, isolate it behind the Plátano Curtain, he acted like it was his very own plantation, acted like he owned everything and everyone, killed whomever he wanted to kill, sons, brothers, fathers, mothers, took women away from their husbands on their wedding nights and then would brag publicly about ‘the great honeymoon’ he’d had the night before. His Eye was everywhere; he had a Secret Police that out-Stasi’d the Stasi, that kept watch on everyone, even those everyones who lived in the States.”
It is Mr. Díaz’s achievement in this galvanic novel that he’s fashioned both a big picture window that opens out on the sorrows of Dominican history, and a small, intimate window that reveals one family’s life and loves. In doing so, he’s written a book that decisively establishes him as one of contemporary fiction’s most distinctive and irresistible new voices.