“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.”
I’d heard about this book on a few occasions prior to picking it up. My good friend Vaughn, of The Nubian Drifter, was particularly passionate about me reading Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao, as he thought the writing style was “very me”. Then, I saw the book on three different “to read” lists, hit up Amazon, and ordered it.
This tells the tale of Oscar de Leon, a likeable “ghettonerd” with an unhealthy obsession for “Dungeons and Dragons”, sci-fi, and women, who has no game whatsoever and hopes to become the Dominican J.R.R Tolkien. The book alternates between Oscar’s story and that of his rebellious punk rock sister Lola; his roommate from Rutgers and on/off boyfriend of his sister, Yunior; and his traditional, imposing mother, Belicia Cabral. We are also introduced to the multigenerational family curse (the fuku) that indirectly brought a young Beli to the states.
Oscar’s desire is simple: to be cool. Well, that, and to be loved by a girl. Oscar fears that he will be the only Dominican man to die a Virgin. He falls madly in love with any girl who shows him even the slightest bit of attention, be it negative or positive. He loves hard, obsessively, ignores his own needs, feelings, and well-being in pursuit of affection. Hell, who hasn’t been there?
Reading this book took me on quite the emotional journey. Junot Diaz kicked me in the face from the first page. Diaz masterfully blends wild and fanatical prose, brilliant characterizations that propel the story along, pertinent historical background, and humor (both effectively and effortlessly) to create a magnetic family saga that I could not put down.
Perhaps one of the strongest tools used is the unconventional presentation. From the ¾ page historical footnotes, to his mashing/creation of words, to his fluid use of Spanglish, to the very distinct, clear, obscure cultural references, the book demanded my full attention. He’d use an entire page to drop relevant (or irrelevant) tidbits on the background of “the Dominican Republic of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated” or go off on a tangent about how fuku followed his family from father to daughter across oceans and onto a new continent and new generations. There’s a moment when one sentence spans over a page and a half. Several times a sentence will shift from English to Spanish and back. More importantly, Diaz is unapologetic for his cultural nods. The English-speaking reader is forced to infer, decipher meaning, and guess on multiple occasions.
Whether we’re learning about Oscar’s mother’s torrid affair with a Dominican mobster or Lola’s struggle for independence, the voices are distinct and discernible. Diaz switched flawlessly between characters, giving them their own unique style of storytelling, each with a clear, strong voice. Though the title alludes to the impending demise of the central character, watching his numerous failed attempts at love, the reader naturally roots for Oscar, hoping to see him shed pounds or dorkiness, to succeed at something. Your heart breaks for him time and time again, while applauding his unshakable determination. The four narrators’ tales are intertwined, supporting one another to collectively convey that, ultimately, it is that same unyielding determination—not a fuku—that ends lives here.
In September he headed to Rutgers New Brunswick, his mother gave him a hundred dollars and his first kiss in five years, his tío a box of condoms: Use them all, he said, and then added: On girls….The white kids looked at his black skin and his afro and treated him with inhuman cheeriness. The kids of color, upon hearing him speak and seeing him move his body, shook their heads. You’re not Dominican. And he said, over and over again, But I am. Soy dominicano. Domincano soy. After a spate of parties that led to nothing but being threatened by some drunk whiteboys, and dozens of classes where not a single girl looked at him, he felt the optimism wane, and before he even realized what had happened he had buried himself in what amounted to the college version of what he’d majored n all throughout high school: getting no ass.
There were moments when I had to put the book down and walk away. I’d literally yell out, “I WANT TO WRITE LIKE THIS,” or I’d call Vaughn and express my disbelief that this person, Junot Diaz, actually exists. He so smoothly seams Dominican folklore into the family’s epic that I sometimes questioned the line between reality and fiction.
Here is a man who has obviously been reading voraciously since sliding out of the birth canal. Diaz flexes his geek muscles, weaving Japanese Manga, Marvel comics, history, and fantasy into the tale. The most lasting sentiment is that my desire to polish my own craft is newly intensified. This piece of work ignites that fire to read more, study more, learn more, and live more. Diaz writes fluently and freely and takes full advantage of writer’s privilege. There had to be times when his sprawling (but warranted) run-on sentences were marked up by some editor’s red pen. I’m certain someone frowned on some of the graphic scenes presented. But I love the shit. Every crazed bit of it. He undertakes feats that are only pulled off through literary mastery. He gives me hope that my tangential rants do have value. This work has earned a place among my favorites. Junot Diaz’s writing touched me the way the drug-fueled ramblings of fictionalizing memoirist James Frey did. His style is mesmerizing, inspiring, and my life has been enriched by exposure to this masterpiece.
Do yourself a favor and buy (versus checking it out—you’ll want to re-read) this book.