The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Wao. Wow. As I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, I kept having this strange feeling that I had heard the voices in the book elsewhere. They sounded so familiar. Yet, these voices weren’t the same as the ones from the characters in Drown, Junot’s collection of short stories that earned critical acclaim including a New York Times Notable Book designation in 1996. This time the main character was a Latino antihero, not Latin lover, not a Rico Suave type, but an overweight—no, a fat Dominican nerd named Oscar De Leon, AKA Oscar Wao.
Oscar, we learn, is ill-fated by a fukú, a curse that arrived in Hispaniola hand in hand with the Europeans and has since been responsible for the doom of Oscar’s ancestors and the downfall of generations of Dominicans. Oscar is in part a Latino Bartleby, preferring to do things his own way, to the annoyance of those around him. He has an unfettered appetite for books and reads such authors as Lovecraft, and he is obsessed with such non-mainstream films as Virus, Zardoz, and Akira. Like Bartleby, Oscar is a pathetic character. He is not the type of nerd about which we enjoy laughing; instead, he is the kind of geek from which we prefer to look away. The main narrator, Yunior, serves as his foil and is pretty much everything that Oscar isn’t. While Oscar has difficulty with the ladies and is socially inept, Yunior is a womanizer who romances and cheats on Oscar’s sister. But like Oscar, he does have redeeming values, and though the reader has to wait patiently to learn of them, like the wait for the publication of this book, the wait is well worth it.
This novel is more complex than it first seems. Díaz uses Oscar as a way to pull the reader in, and just as when the story seems to be making a statement about an individual, it goes beyond that. Ultimately, it provides multilayered commentaries on isolation, love, politics, humanity and the history of Trujillo. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao proves once again that Junot Díaz is a prolific author with an education in the streets, a knowledge of the classics, a keen eye for pop culture, and a tremendous talent for writing. Had Herman Melville been born in the Dominican Republic, moved to New Jersey and spent time in Washington Heights, perhaps he would have named his protagonist Oscar Wao rather than Bartleby. Yes, Díaz is that talented. Whatever fukú follows Oscar, it certainly left Díaz alone. There is no sophomore jinx in Díaz’s second book. In fact, there is no doubt it will win more than its fair share of awards.
The main reason why the voices in this novel sound familiar isn’t only because they remind me of other great writers; it’s because Díaz writes as if he has a Latino audience in mind. That may not make much sense to those of other descents who enjoy and appreciate the book. But to those of us who hear echoes of funny uncles, hard-working parents, and individuals whose fates can only be explained by something as irrational as a fukú, we are left with nothing more to say except “wow.” Wao.
Jose B. Gonzalez is
the Editor of LatinoStories.Com, the
Co-Editor of Latino Boom:
Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature,
and an award-winning poet and
educator who has been a featured
speaker at various colleges and
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Copyright 2006 Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature, Pearson Education, Inc.
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Last Updated: July 06, 2009