It's a Wonderful Life

Reviewed by Jabari Asim
Sunday, September 30, 2007


By Junot Diaz

Riverhead. 340 pp. $24.95

Nowadays, there may be Hmong in Madison and Somalis in St. Paul, but some of us still have trouble keeping up with all the intense cultural mixing and melting going on amid our purple-mountained majesty. For example, mention the Dominicans among us to the average Tom, Dick or Andy Rooney, and he's liable to speak of a mythical Shortstop Island from which wing-footed infielders plot their takeover of America's pastime. As for the Dominican Republic's history, imports, exports, that sort of thing? Well, its national baseball team is one of the best in the world, right? Or is that Venezuela?

Junot Diaz has the cure for such woeful myopia. The Dominican Republic he portrays in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a wild, beautiful, dangerous and contradictory place, both hopelessly impoverished and impossibly rich. Not so different, perhaps, from anyone else's ancestral homeland, but Diaz's weirdly wonderful novel illustrates the island's uniquely powerful hold on Dominicans wherever they may wander -- a borderless anxiety zone that James Baldwin would describe as "the anguished diaspora."

Thus, that nation's bloody history, often detailed in Diaz's irreverent footnotes, intrudes periodically in Oscar Wao, as if to remind Dominicans that tragedy is never far from one's doorstep. Or maybe it emerges simply to instruct the rest of us, because Diaz's characters are already painfully certain that they are destined for misfortune.

Or, more precisely, cursed.

Fuku americanus, Diaz explains, is "generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World." It seems especially contagious and deadly in the Dominican Republic, where "it is believed that the arrival of Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed the fuku on the world." How exotic. How ominous-sounding. How very similar to the pet profanity of New Yorkers from Staten Island to the Bronx.

But the tale begins in Santo Domingo, where "a story is not a story unless it casts a supernatural shadow." It revolves around several generations of one Dominican family, of which young Oscar de Leon, a depressed, overweight substitute teacher, is among the youngest descendants. The clan's patriarch, a brilliant doctor named Abelard Luis Cabral, came down with an ultimately fatal case of fuku back in 1946, having run afoul of the malady's high priest.

That would be Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, the tyrannical sadist who bedeviled his fellow Dominicans for more than three blood-drenched decades. Naturally, his terror-mongering casts a large, threatening shadow over much of the novel's action.

Abelard's fuku apparently becomes part of his family's DNA, traveling through time and blood cells to infect his grandson. ("Oscar Wao" is how one of the tormentors of his college years charmingly mutilated "Oscar Wilde," a derisive nickname young de Leon accepted without protest).

In no rush to spill the details of his hero's short, star-crossed adventures, Diaz maneuvers his plot through various time shifts, settings and narrators. From Santo Domingo to Washington Heights, N.Y., to Paterson, N.J., various generations of de Leons wrestle with fate and lose. Along the way, Diaz liberally sprinkles his pages with allusions to authors, books and especially stories from the science-fiction and fantasy genres to which Oscar is devoted. So don't be surprised when a discussion of Caesar and Ovid morphs into the Fantastic Four versus Galactus, and Mario Vargas Llosa gets short shrift compared to Jack Kirby, the late, lamented genius of Marvel Comics's glory years.

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