Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Book Review

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz is a tour de force of hip hop language, contemporary popular culture, social and political history, and drop dead fine story telling. Through the eyes and voice of a narrator known only as Yunior (Yunior – Junior – Junot?), Diaz tells the story of Oscar Wao, the fat, unhappy, and unloved son of the Dominican diaspora in Patterson, New Jersey. Yunior may be a somewhat unreliable narrator, as his view of Oscar is seen through the lens of his love for Oscar’s sister Lola and his own needs and activities. Nevertheless, Yunior portrays himself as the one enduring friend besides his family in Oscar’s life.
Oscar Wao is a fat, unhappy child whose only real satisfaction comes from reading and writing science fiction novels influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien’s ring trilogy and Dr. Savage novels as well as graphic novels and Japanese anime. Oscar meets the challenges of the real world, by burrowing into his writing and dreaming about the sex life he believes he’s never going to realize. When Oscar grows up and enrolls at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Yunior is the only person willing to room with him, bringing them closer together and enabling Yunior’s narrative of Oscar’s life. Yunior himself tells Oscar’s story from the point of view of a man struggling with his own inner conflicts between his desire to be a macho guy’s guy and his sensitive literary self who loves Lola and, yes, Oscar.
Oscar is a dreamy nerd who early on gives in to his own flabby bulk, hiding within his fantasy games, books, and comics. His only social intercourse comes through endless games of Dungeons and Dragons until his friends desert him for girls when puberty wins out. Oscar falls in love with the girls he creates in his imagination in the form of those he knows. He rarely confronts the reality of his life of his family, preferring to remain in his idealistic dream life where he can at least feel a modicum of comfort.

Oscar’s world, as created by Junot Diaz, is the world of the Dominican expatriate living in New Jersey and New York. His family, having come to America to escape the brutality of the Trujillo regime as well as the curse of a fuku, a ghost or haunting spirit, which keeps destroying them. In the narrative, Diaz tells the story of the family within the context of Dominican history told in a series of long and interesting footnotes. The sardonic tone does nothing to diminish the horror of the Trujillo family and the devastation they imposed on the family. The story is often funny, sometimes hilarious, but the specter of Oscar’s end is implied by the novel’s title. Diaz writing is rich with imagery and the lively Spanglish street argot of Hispanic immigrants. The story encapsulates the contemporary immigrant experience as the characters seek to better their lives through education and hard work. Nevertheless, as with many first generation immigrants, they can never quite overcome the challenges visited on them by their home country or their adopted one.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz is published in trade paperback by Riverhead Books, a division of the Penguin Group. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2008 as well as a number of other prizes. It is available on line, at chain bookstores, or your local independent bookstore. It’s an engaging and somewhat challenging story that is more than worth the effort.