Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Junot Diaz: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Amy Linden reviews Junot Diaz' "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao".
Not sure if them there literary folks call it a comeback. But when you write a book, said book blows up, (and upon doing so breaks more ground than a jackhammer, as well as garnering unanimous acclaim), chances are good that when the author returns, his new book will be greeted with mad attention, anticipation and maybe even (to keep the alliteration going), apprehension.

Eleven years after his masterful collection of short stories, "Drown," Junot Diaz, the once and future king of Dominican American fiction, has returned: not only with his first full length novel, but possibly - hell, definitely - one of the best books you will ever read in your whole damn life. Period.

The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao is blindingly good - loaded with warmth, keen observation, biting political and social commentary and the sort of humor that makes you laugh out loud, and then pause to reflect on what was so funny. Diaz peppers his narrative with Spanglish, breaks it down with a flow to give Jigga sleepless nights, offers a brutal history and most of all, more of the people in Oscar's wondrous life.

Above all, this is a saga about family. The roots. The aunts, uncles, grandmothers and cousins. The ties that bind. The generational pull and the traditions and superstitions - in this case the curse of the Fuku- and just what it means to truly love, consequences and all. Motivating this socio-economic sit-com/Dominican "Dynasty" are some vibrant and unforgettable folks. There's Oscar's sister Lola, a heartbreaker who masks her sexual siren's call by becoming the neighborhood's first Dominican Goth. There's Oscar's and her moms, Belicia - a former DR beauty queen whose bombshell looks and "dear diary" naiveté results in the kind of damage that will never be repaired. There's dedicated homeboy, relentless skirt chaser and Oscar's BFF, Yunior (a holdover from "Drown," as well as a wisecracking stand-in for Diaz himself) and, of course, the man-child in the vortex of everything swirling around him, Oscar; an overweight, virgin, comic-book-collecting, JR Tolkien-obsessed, sweet-natured, pathetically romantic nerd who spend his days looking for love in all the wrong places.

The book is set in NYC's little DR, Washington Heights, Patterson, New Jersey, and the Dominican Republic: both present and horrific past tense, back when its citizens were terrorized by the bloodthirsty dictator Rafael Trujillo. But the infusion of pure evil doesn't read as despair, at least not all of the time. Diaz's powerful prose turns ugly into beauty, painful into triumphant and ordinary into revelatory. Oh yeah. The prose. People. Check the technique. Describing a particularly deadly cop Diaz writes, "He was one of those tall, arrogant, acerbically handsome niggers that most of the planet feels inferior to. Also one of those very bad men that not even post modernism can explain away." What?! But without being all experimental or obtuse or literary on your ass (this is one of the most user-friendly of "important" works you will come across), Diaz pushes and pushes and then goes to Staples and gets himself another damn envelope - one big enough to contain the magic and mayhem contained within The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

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