“To say I’d never in my life met a Dominican like him would be to put it mildly,” declares narrator, Yunior, about Oscar de León in, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. To say I have never in my life met a protagonist like Oscar in any novel I have ever read would be an understatement. If you think abysmal and awkward; nerdy and a nobody; out of place and out of shape; portly and pimply; uncool and uncouth, you have thought of Oscar de León, called Oscar Wao by Yunior, Oscar’s sometimes friend and college roommate.
Oscar is always the last one chosen, if chosen at all. He strikes out with the ladies, when he is lucky enough to make it to the batter’s box. His fellow Dominicans question his Dominican origins because no Dominican male dies a virgin, and Oscar has not even kissed a girl. To put it mildly, Oscar is a loser, a 300-pound, “lovesick ghetto nerd.” He is, like all the de Leóns before him, condemned with fukú, “the Curse and the Doom of the New World.” In spite of this extraordinary ill fate, Oscar is hopeful in the midst of his cosmic hopelessness. Throughout the novel, I cheered for him, regardless of his grotesque luck, manners, and physique, like I would cheer for a dark-skinned, over-weight Dominican version of Charlie Brown.
Paralleling Oscar’s relentless pursuit of love, is a desire to cultivate his passion for writing. His literary goal is to produce a masterpiece rivaled only by Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, one of his two great artistic influences. (The other is the 1988 Japanese manga film classic, Akira.) Diaz’s novel is seasoned with countless references to science fiction, fantasy, and other “more speculative genres,” that Oscar voraciously reads, confirming his fundamental nerd status.
The settings in The Brief Life of Oscar Wao include the Dominican Republic (D.R.), New Jersey, and New York City, spanning from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, with flashbacks from the beginning of Raphael Trujillo’s reign (1930-1961) in the D.R., through the 1970s in the United States. If there is any historical accuracy to Mr. Díaz’s novel, the reader is introduced to some of the most horrific atrocities of the 20th century performed by this brutal dictator, originally empowered by the United States government. The de Leóns are directly affected by Trujillo’s terror, part of fukú’s curse.
The intersecting lives of Oscar’s beautiful and athletic sister (Lola), controlling but loving mother (Beli), and traditional grandmother will seem familiar, yet at times appear unbelievable. The question of whether Oscar achieves Dominican manhood remains unanswered until the dramatic final pages.
I listened to the CD audio version of the book, read by Jonathan Davis with Staci Snell, which let me hear the cadence and rhythm of Diaz’s hip-hop influenced writing style and the numerous Dominican Spanish phrases in an accent I can only pretend to possess. The CD version includes Diaz’s collection of short stories, Drown. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz won the 2007 New York Times Notable Book Gold Medal, the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award, and the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
The Denton Public Library has print, OverDrive downloadable audio, and compact disc (CD) audio versions.
-reviewed by Doug Campbell, Senior Librarian – Denton Public Library, North Branch