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It's a Wonderful Life
An overweight "ghetto nerd" struggles to find love and a place to call home.

Reviewed by Jabari Asim
Sunday, September 30, 2007

THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO

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.

Adding to our reading pleasure, Diaz excels at making fun of despots. At the mercy of the author's machete-sharp wit, Trujillo becomes the Failed Cattle Thief, the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated, the man who was Mobutu before Mobutu was Mobutu. Of Joaqu┬┐n Balaguer, Trujillo's successor, he writes, "Like most homunculi he did not marry and left no heirs." And it's hard to resist his clever nickname for Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, the madman whose pillaging made a wreck of Haiti: P. Daddy.

Clearly a believer that membership has its privileges, Diaz makes cracks about Dominicans that the average Andy Rooney could never get away with. Reflecting on the ebony skin that keeps bubbling up in the de Leon bloodline, Diaz writes, "That's the kind of culture I belong to: people took their child's black complexion as an ill omen." Another character observes, "That's white people for you. They lose a cat and it's an all-points bulletin, but we Dominicans, we lose a daughter and we might not even cancel our appointment at the salon." There's also the distressing but all-too-credible spectacle of so many dark-skinned Dominicans spitting the word "nigger" more often than Timbaland at a freestyle battle or Harriett Beecher Stowe at her abolitionist best. "No one, alas, more oppressive than the oppressed," Diaz explains.

But enough about that. As Yunior (one of Diaz's narrators and a welcome holdover from Drown, his acclaimed story collection) reminds us, "This is supposed to be a true account of the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao."

Obese and socially awkward, Oscar is obsessed with food, girls, role-playing games, girls, anime, girls -- you get the picture. Trouble is, female companions remain tantalizingly beyond his grasp, as do all other kinds of companions, who eventually abandon him to his habitual depression. Oscar couldn't find a pal on the Island of Lost Toys.

"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," Diaz writes. "Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest." Does Oscar ever overcome his ungainliness and find romance or a sense of belonging? The brevity of his tale prevents me from telling you much. Although I found the big guy totally sympathetic, he's often way too stubborn for his own good. In addition, it's not his fault that nearly every other character holds our interest just as easily -- more of a reflection of Diaz's broad palette than Oscar's lack of dimension.

But Oscar clearly is not intended to function as a hero in the classical sense. Is he meant primarily to symbolize the tangled significance of desire, exile and homecoming? Or is he a 307-lb. warning that only slim guys get the girls? Are we to wring from his ample flesh more of that anguished diaspora stuff? Could be, but I find sufficient meaning in the sheer joy of absorbing Diaz's sentences, each rolled out with all the nerdy, wordy flair of an audacious imagination and a vocabulary to match. It's easy to imagine Diaz smiling as he uncorked a description of a woman with "breasts like sunsets trapped beneath her skin" or writing of Trujillo, "Homeboy dominated Santo Domingo like it was his very own private Mordor."

Diaz pulls it off with the same kind of eggheaded urban eloquence found in the work of Paul Beatty ( The White Boy Shuffle), Victor LaValle ( Slapboxing with Jesus), Mat Johnson ( Drop) and his very own Drown. Geek swagger, baby. Get used to it.

Notwithstanding his neological dazzle, he's anything but longwinded. And he's patient -- maddeningly so. Diaz made us wait 11 years for this first novel and boom! -- it's over just like that. It's not a bad gambit, to always leave your audience wanting more.

So brief and wondrous, this life of Oscar. Wow. *

Jabari Asim, former deputy editor of Book World, is editor-in-chief of the Crisis magazine.

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