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A Dominican teen shadowboxes with his past

Junot Díaz tells the story of a 'ghetto nerd' trapped in his own fantasies.

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It has taken Dominican American author Junot Díaz more than a decade to pen the highly anticipated follow-up to his much acclaimed, best-selling short story collection "Drown." It was these gritty tales about the Dominican experience that cemented his status as an overnight literary success. In his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Díaz presents a slice of the vast history of Santo Domingo and the intricate past and present of a doomed family.

If you think your adolescence hit with unrelenting force, then you'd do well to meet Oscar de León, Díaz's sci-fi obsessed, overweight, romantic hero who hopes to someday be the "Dominican Stephen King."

Oscar is the ultimate outcast both at home and at school. This "ghetto nerd" lacks the philandering, macho finesse expected of a Dominican male. His bookish manner and unappealing looks relegate his high school experience to the level of "a medieval spectacle," an experience "like being put in the stocks and forced to endure the pelting and outrages of a mob of deranged half-wits."

But this is more than a tale of mere adolescent anguish. Oscar and his family appear to be the hapless victims of a so-called Dominican curse, or the "fukú," that has followed them for generations from the shores of their homeland to New Jersey.

Díaz weaves the stories of Lola, his troubled but supportive sister, and Belicia, his hardened mother, along with various other family members, to portray a colorful and complex portrait of mad love, old-world superstition, and the continual strivings of a diaspora.

This array produces a rich foundation for the family's tale and allows Díaz to intertwine the histories of Oscar, Lola, and Belicia in order to convey the shared "inextinguishable longing for elsewheres" that exists in each of their souls.

In doing so, Díaz reveals more than a tale of "Dominican-ness": He illustrates the way seemingly different family members can cross generational divides to draw so similarly and inexplicably from the well of their heritage.


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