Reading “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz, winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was more than just comprehending type on a page. It was more than getting to know a plot, some characters and a story line. Each time I opened the book, there was no telling where I would be taken, whom I would meet, or what intense emotion I would feel.
This story required me to be completely present and willing to be taught, told and forced to hear the story of a cursed Dominican family spanning various generations of despair, tragedy and unbelievable perseverance.
The story of Oscar Wao is not by any means a happy, sugary tale. It is the-hard-to swallow story of an overweight Dominican-American “ghetto-nerd” from Paterson, N.J., desperately trying to win a heart (any will do) of an out-of-his league (they all are) girl, and fall into a fantasy love worthy of his science fiction dreams.
The problem is that Oscar, no matter how good his intentions and how hard the poor guy tries, does not exactly fit the Dominican man stereotype of a suave, player/pimp that has luck with the ladies.
In fact, he doesn’t really fit into any made-to-order category; he is vastly misunderstood by his family, and more so, his culture.
Oscar would rather stay holed up in his room for days writing his version of the next Tolkien masterpiece, tending to his comic books and playing his video games. No one understands Oscar, and all his family does is pressure him to lose weight and to get laid.
Reading this book is like having a conversation with a Dominican dude with something to say. The narrative is told by Yunior, Oscar’s college roommate and screw-up boyfriend of Oscar’s beautiful sister Lola, in a witty, snappy, full-of-slang sort of way.
In truth, reading this book was no small order; it took some getting used to. But once I grew accustomed to the mixture of Spanglish, street talk, and long descriptive footnotes detailing the Dominican Republic’s history and dictators (as well as comic book references and unknown terms), I realized that I had come across something truly original.
Although the book focuses on the tale of Oscar Wao (the Dominican pronunciation of Oscar Wilde, as he is nicknamed one Halloween when he supposedly resembles Wilde), that is not really the masterpiece in this cluster of crazy. And as the title suggests, our Oscar is not meant to be around for very long. I was mostly captivated by the tales of his family members, including his sister Lola, and the immense love she made sure to show Oscar, especially in his darkest days. I found that the true story was in the heart of the sorrowful life of Oscar’s mother Beli.
When we first meet Beli, it is hard to understand her harsh antics and crude childrearing practices. But when we go back a generation, we are slapped in the face with her story. It is an interesting, horrible and raw tale of a young abandoned Dominican girl finding and losing herself as she comes of age.
We also get to see the story of Beli’s father and his unfortunate circumstances under the cruel and unusual rule of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, and the controversial story he was writing that ultimately began the family’s long standing curse, or as the Dominicans call it, the dreaded “Fuku.”
If I could spotlight one recurrent theme through all of the generations of tragedies, I would say it is each member’s unwillingness to give up. All of the characters boldly stand for what they believe in, even if it will cost his or her life.
I have never read a book like this one. There were moments when the prose was funny and full of wit and other times it hurt to turn the page. There were times I hated it, always followed by times I was reminded why I loved it. What talent Diaz has, to be able to weave a tale so thick, so rich with feeling. It was amazing and, perhaps because it is not something I was immediately drawn to, turned out to be the reason why I was sad to see it come to a conclusion. This is the gritty tale of immigrants pushing and shoving their way toward survival, but really, it is the life of Oscar Wao: writer, lover and linguist extraordinaire, who just wouldn’t go down without a fight.
Next week’s Read This! will be Joe Meno’s latest creation, “Demons in the Spring.” Happy reading!