A Dominican teen shadowboxes with his past
Junot Díaz tells the story of a 'ghetto nerd' trapped in his own fantasies.
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.
At other times, the effects can be overwhelming. Díaz delivers much of his "mandatory 2 seconds of Dominican history" in the form of lengthy, irreverent, but often hilarious footnotes. This is how readers are introduced to Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic for more than 30 years with an "implacable, ruthless brutality" and who is the source of the family's cursed past.
Countless science fiction references are introduced with Spanglish phrases and profanity, which will no doubt offend some readers. Much of the book is narrated in the unruly language of Yunior, the potty-mouthed on-again, off-again boyfriend of Lola – and a confusing choice for a novel intent on communicating the rich history of this immigrant family.
Defiant and beautiful, Lola lacks depth in comparison to the more complex Oscar and Belicia. And while the author does show Lola's link with her brother and mother – the family penchant for "crazy loves," the desire to escape, and "The Fall" (the term the author uses for their individual battles with doom) which ensnares them all – her voice rarely rings true.
However, Belicia's story delivers the substance needed to round out the family's tale. She emerges from the caricature of an overbearing mother as readers gradually learn about her horrific childhood and past as a restless young woman.
Díaz does an excellent job of uniting this family across their multitude of differences. It is through Belicia's intense, indescribable desire as a young woman for "something else" that the reader begins to fully grasp Oscar's obsession with escaping to sci-fi fantasy worlds and Lola's constant desire for change.
Often, readers may find themselves rallying against "the Fall" that Díaz makes clear is Oscar's destiny, but in our author's world this family's past is an unavoidable element of their future.
And while Díaz allows Oscar to negotiate his end somewhat on his on terms, he spares no one and refutes the sentimentality of a saving grace because "in the end? Nothing ends."
• Elizabeth Owuor is a freelance writer living in Boston.