Posted by: Lizzie Ross | July 10, 2010

Dominican tragedy

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz (2007), Riverhead, 335 pp.

The best place to start this post is at the beginning of Díaz’s terrific novel:

They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fukú americanus, or more colloquially, fukú — generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World.

This novel is about the Dominican Republic, Trujillo (infamous D.R. dictator long supported by the US government), Dominican immigrants in the NYC area, machismo, love and male adolescence. What an incredible mix! And it comes with footnotes!

Oscar de León is not your typical Dominican male. He’s a sci-fi, fantasy, and Marvel comics fanatic, a writer, overweight, nerdy, unable to live up to his culture’s ideal of masculinity. And his family has been suffering under the fukú for generations.

Oscar’s life moves from Washington Heights in NYC (setting for Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical In the Heights), to New Jersey, and then between NJ and the DR. He’s intelligent and makes it to college (Rutgers), but his personal life keeps getting in his way.

From the two narrators we learn about Oscar’s sister, mother and maternal grandfather, and about Oscar’s search for a girlfriend and for a self in which he can feel comfortable. And all the while, shifting between backdrop and foreground, is the horror that was Trujillo, the guarantor of every Dominican’s fukú.

The language here, despite the tragedy of Oscar’s story, is joyful, energetic, earthy, and flavored with Caribbean Spanish. For instance, while at Rutgers, Oscar decides to pursue a goth Puerto Rican who has already given the narrator the brush-off.

In my universe, when a dork like Oscar pushes up on a girl like Jenni, he usually gets bounced faster than your tía Daisy’s rent checks, but Jenni must have had brain damage or been really into fat loser nerdboys, because by the end of February she was actually treating him all civil and shit. Before I could wrap my brain around that one I saw them hanging out together! In public! I couldn’t believe my fucking eyes. And then came the day when I returned from my creative-writing class and found La Jablesse and Oscar sitting in our room. They were just talking, about Alice Walker, but still. Oscar looking like he’d just been asked to join the Jedi Order; Jenni smiling beautiful.

I couldn’t help cheering for Oscar, despite his bad choices and perpetually unrequited love for so many different girls and women.

At the end of the novel, in a reverse echo from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the narrator quotes Oscar, and we leave his Life feeling a bittersweet joy — with luck, these will be my own final words: “So this is what everybody’s always talking about! Diablo! If only I’d known. The beauty! The beauty!”

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