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Book Review: The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

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I was in New York this June for Book Expo America and was walking through a crowded aisle on my way to a meeting when something caught my eye and made me stop dead in my tracks. The name Junot Diaz on a simple white cover was enough to stop my fast moving walk to a meeting a had about a minute to get to clear on the other side of the Javits center. I not only stopped, I gasped and then I grabbed. I held that book like it was the Holy Grail and enraptured, carried it to my meeting which I couldn’t concentrate on because all I could think of was the book, the long awaited book burning a hole in my book bag.

That night on the balcony overlooking the Empire State building at my friend Joe’s place in Hell’s Kitchen I reverently opened the book by Junot Diaz. It was early morning with a muggy sun coming up before I put it down again. There were pages that I read once, twice, thrice just for the pleasure of them. The footnotes in particular were wonderful. I read them again and again out loud to myself just for the pleasure of saying them. I re-read the book on the plane home and found it to be equally entertaining and great. I got into the office and shared footnotes with people reading them out loud at random times.

I waited and waited to review it. Why? Because sometimes a book is so damned great that it defies reviewing. I mean what do you say? Everything will sound canned. It’s great, it’s wonderful, it’s fantastic. Whatever. It’s all that and more but how to say it? How do I describe what is essentially a masterpiece so eloquent that it almost defies description? Think Britney Spears following Janis Joplin at a concert. Yeah.

Well, I chickened out and put the book on my shelf for a couple of months just to sit there and glare at me. Well it’s time now – the book, the glorious book, is tired of waiting. I read it again last night and two months haven’t changed its beauty.

The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao begins with a history of fukú (a curse of both gargantuan and subtle proportions) outlined in its gorgeous footnotes that reveal a plethora of Dominican history and political information with a deft and almost musical talent. The footnoted description of fukú was hilarious and I read it again and again. You get the sense that this story about a sci-fi addicted, desperately lonely fat boy Oscar is doomed from the start but you can’t help hoping for him all the time knowing that the fukú is gonna get him.

The book flips back and forth with information about Oscar, pitiful Oscar, his sister, mother, grandparents and peripheral people in his life. The whole Dominican Republic past and present is also a character as is the evil Trujillo. The 30-year reign of terror of one President Rafael Leónidas Trujillo was particularly bloody. Shit, us Mexican girls grew up scared of Trujillo. That vato made the massacre at Tlateloco by the Mexican government look like a Sunday outing. (I’m NOT trivializing Tlateloco by any means – just showing how horrible Trujillo was. Sol ducks looks around hoping the fukú doesn’t get her).

Oscar’s life story is an amazing one – he is a hero just by virtue of being so pathetic and by his first generation immigrant status. You feel his pain, his loneliness and want so badly to help him but you can’t. There are 500 years of pain and abuse stored up in that boy. The way I saw it Oscar became the colonized Latin America/indigenous peoples all rolled up into one fat nerd.

The book switches back and forth from English, to Spanish, to indigenous slang, to insults, to an almost hip hop feel, a sing-song rap about cultural genocide, abuse, pillage and politics all caught up in the life of one young man. It reads like a song and makes no italics or apologies for switching back and forth between languages and slang. It’s saying understand me or don’t – my prose is so gorgeous I don’t need to translate for you. Just deal. Just read. Just absorb. And you do. You breathe Junot Diaz’s words. You learn more about the DR and politics than you’d ever learn in a history class taught by the best teacher. You’re captured, captivated, you’re sucked in, your singing along with him and your singing in his style. At the end of the book you’re changed and you’ll never be the same.

About the Author
Junot Diaz's fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The Best American Short Stories. His debut story collection, Drown, was a publishing sensation of unprecedented acclaim, became a national bestseller, won numerous awards, and is now a landmark of contemporary literature. He was born and raised in the Dominican Republic, and now lives in New York City and Boston, where he teaches at MIT.

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