It’s been 11 years since Junot Díaz published his acclaimed story collection, Drown, and he has spent the time well, honing the sharp, slangy voice that propels his terrific first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Narrated in high-energy Spanglish, the book is packed with wide-ranging cultural references — to Dune, Julia Alvarez, The Sound of Music — as well as erudite and hilarious footnotes on Caribbean history. It is a joy to read, and every bit as exhilarating to reread.
Oscar ”Wao” De León, the story’s sweet-souled hero, is a pudgy New Jersey kid with a body out of a Daniel Clowes comic book and a head full of Gamma World and Isaac Asimov. Oscar’s got woes: ”You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.” In the early chapters, Díaz mines Oscar’s geekiness for its pathos and humor, starting with his crushes (”he had secret loves all over town, the kind of curly-haired big-bodied girls who wouldn’t have said boo to a loser like him”) and moving on to his nerd-boy attempts to transform into ”one of those Dominican cats everybody’s always going on about.”
Oscar’s inability to reinvent himself may be his noblest trait, for ”those Dominican cats” bring nothing but trouble. The novel’s darker themes emerge as Díaz moves backward and sideways in time, delving into the lives of Oscar’s mother, Beli, a legendary beauty with ”a cuerpazo so berserk that only a pornographer or a comic book artist could have designed it with a clear conscience,” and his older sister, Lola, who can’t wear shorts without causing traffic jams.
Oscar’s clan has experienced a long run of terrible luck — murders, torture, exodus from their native Dominican Republic — which they blame on fukú, an ancient curse. In fact, their misfortunes typically begin with sex: The family’s gorgeous women wield erotic power over coldhearted, hypermale hombres — including real-life Dominican strongman Rafael Trujillo — who maintains brute power over the world at large. The consequences of the liaisons are often tragic.
Because Oscar is not a typical Dominican cat — ”Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens” — when the hapless protagonist is sucked into the erotic maelstrom, he momentarily changes its current, emerging as an unlikely hero. Oscar’s story is indeed brief, but, like this novel, it is also quite wondrous. A-