The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

by Susana Fletcher

I have a confession to make. Before I read this book, I had never heard the name Trujillo, and my "quick -- think fast" response to the Dominican Republic was "baseball". (Uh, Sammy Sosa, hello?) But along with the woven stories of Oscar, his sister Lola, their mother Beli and matriarch La Inca in Junot Diaz' cutting novel, there is a bitter love song to the Dominican. The irresistible draw of the land and the people, and the thorns of fear that the legacy of Rafael Trujillo's cruel dictatorship has yet to erase.

Oscar is a "ghetto nerd" of sorts, and through the eyes of Yunior, Lola's on-again-off-again, we get the unbridled tale of Oscar's woe, of his fuku (read: bad juju) brought on by the family's history, and of a boy caught between two worlds, the Dominicans who can't make sense of a Tolkien-loving Trekkie, and people in the States, who think he's a fat, nerdy Dominican. Self-aware and unapologetic, Oscar is surrounded by people who just want him to change. But who changes whom?

Diaz' language is not for the faint of heart. The fluidity of Spanish to English to cursing street speech is a bit overwhelming at times, but brilliantly woven. The lack of quotation marks, I know, is a style issue. So I guess Diaz made his point. But the accomplishment of language in this book, to span so many lives, so many attitudes, such range of emotion and experience, and all through a third party playboy like Yunior, is nothing less than awesome.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is an important book. It is an immigrant family history with wonderment as big as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and with approachability as easy as hip-hop music. It is coarse, refined, lovely, heartbreaking, offensive, necessary and endearing all in the same breath.


By Junot Díaz

340 pages. Riverhead Books. $24.95.