Book Review: Readings

Mordecai Richler once remarked that 'the novelist's primary moral responsibility is to be the loser's advocate.' It's difficult to imagine how anyone who takes that dictum to heart could outdo Junot Díaz here.


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

by Junot Díaz
Riverhead, 352 pp., $24.95

The late Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler once remarked that "the novelist's primary moral responsibility is to be the loser's advocate." It's difficult to imagine how anyone who takes that dictum to heart could outdo Junot Díaz in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The book's eponymous character is an absolute mess. Obese, fixated on science fiction, and heavily involved in fantasy role-playing games, the late Oscar de León of Paterson, N.J., "was a social introvert who trembled with fear during gym class and who watched nerd British shows like Doctor Who and Blake's 7, and could tell you the difference between a Veritech fighter and a Zentraedi walker." At one point, "Wao" was appended to his first name as a bastardization of "Wilde"; dressed in a Doctor Who outfit for Halloween, the corpulent Dominican-American Oscar apparently resembled the maverick Anglo-Irish playwright.

Whereas Oscar Wilde swung both ways, however, Oscar Wao was a raging heterosexual. Not only that, but we know from an unlikely friend that he was a softie: "It would have been one thing if like some of the nerdboys I'd grown up with he hadn't cared about girls, but alas he was still the passionate enamorao who fell in love easily and deeply." Unfortunately, the hotties he so craved invariably turned their finely powdered noses up and flounced off whenever he approached. Female haughtiness together with male persecution naturally meant a lot of misery. "For Oscar, high school was the equivalent of a medieval spectacle, like being put in the stocks and forced to endure the peltings and outrages of a mob of deranged half-wits." Time failed to change anything, as Oscar quickly found himself in "the college version of what he'd majored in all throughout high school: getting no ass."

But don't worry: This is not some relentlessly downbeat tale of abject failure. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is admittedly an obituary of sorts, a wistful ode to a perennially lonely outcast who spent most of his life battling "bad no-love karma" and various other mysterious afflictions. Yet Oscar always bounced back after bouts of depression and would eventually reap an unexpected and bittersweet reward for his dogged persistence. His winding and uncertain journey makes for a fast and furious but also deeply moving novel. Indeed, for all his harsh-sounding hip-hop argot, Díaz has crafted a tender and sensitive tale of a much put-upon man struggling to find love.

Díaz also offers up a fascinating and disturbing portrait of "the Dominican Republic of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated." Before escaping the country, Oscar's mother experienced the terror of Trujillo's autocratic rule during the 1940s and Fifties, something Díaz depicts with minute attention to period detail. Decades after Trujillo's assassination (in 1961), the Dominican Republic remained a violent and lawless place. In the section devoted to Oscar's sister Lola, who spends a year in the beleaguered Caribbean country, we get a feel for a more contemporary Dominican Republic; by the time Oscar's own story takes him to the land of his origin for a fateful rendezvous, Díaz has ensured that we've got some welcome grounding in recent Dominican history.

Oddly enough, the story's premise, that of a fukú – or curse – that haunts the Cabrals (Oscar's family on his mother's side), is entirely superfluous. The curse was provoked by Oscar's grandfather, who made an offhand remark about Trujillo. His subsequent arrest "precipitated an unprecedented downturn in the family fortune. Tripped, at some cosmic level, a lever against the family. Call it a whole lot of bad luck, outstanding karmic debt, or something else. (Fukú?)" Yet as Díaz so forcefully demonstrates, the Cabrals' misfortunes were hardly unique; most Dominicans suffered terribly during Trujillo's reign. Tellingly, post-Trujillo calamities, which befell the family (including Oscar), also tended to take place in the Dominican Republic, where the Cabrals hardly needed a mystical curse to suffer from political instability and lawlessness, two unfortunate facts of life for virtually all Dominicans.

There are other irritants, as well. Díaz's heavy use of Spanish – not just a few words but entire sentences – is flashy and unnecessary. It is also strange that the author, who meticulously provides explanatory footnotes for Dominican political references, could not be moved to translate important Spanish-language exchanges into English. Many readers also will have difficulty understanding references to characters drawn from J.R.R. Tolkien's novels, various sci-fi comics, and Japanese animation. Finally, uneven editing will cause confusion. Who is Melvin, the guy who mispronounces "Wilde" as "Wao" when Oscar's friend Yunior makes the comparison? (Thereafter, it is the mangled version of the name that sticks.)

Annoying and distracting as these aspects of the novel are, only the most captious reader will allow them to hamper enjoyment of the overall story. Apart from giving us a highly sympathetic portrait of a loser/hero, Díaz further has enlarged the Dominican-American literary niche to which he earlier contributed Drown, that wildly successful short-story collection of 1996. Eleven years is a long wait for a follow-up, but it certainly is worth it: Oscar Wao is an (unlikely) icon who will not soon be forgotten, and the story of his life establishes Díaz as a major novelist.

Junot Díaz will be at BookPeople on Sunday, Sept. 23, 3pm.

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz, Riverhead

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