Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Nerd King: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

It's Junot Diaz' birthday today, so I thought I'd offer up this small, humble gift of a review.  My take on his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao first appeared at January Magazine in November 2007.

Meet Oscar de Leon, dubbed “Oscar Wao” by bullies who liken him to the foppish Oscar Wilde.  Our Oscar is a fat, virginal Dominican-American teenager who carries a Planet of the Apes lunchbox to school, spends hours painting his Dungeons & Dragons miniatures, and who knows “more about the Marvel Universe than Stan Lee.”  If Nerd was a country, Oscar would be its undisputed king.  Oscar is the kind of kid we would avoid on the subway--sweaty, mumbles to himself, inevitably invades personal space, probably has bad breath.

In Junot Diaz' debut novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, however, Oscar is the flame and we are the moths.  An earnestly open-hearted protagonist, he draws us to him until we incinerate in the intensity of his character.  He's a pitiful-but-hopeful loser we can all relate to, even the Prom Kings and Queens among us (who might just be the loneliest kids in school).  The last time I was this absorbed by a fictional weirdo was in 1989 when John Irving's Owen Meany forced me--FORCED, I SAY!--to read his Prayer twice in rapid, thirsty succession.  Oscar held me captive in much the same way with his sweaty, sticky fingers tightly gripping my attention.

Let's return to Diaz for a moment.  To use the words "Diaz" and "debut novel" in such close proximity is something of a joke.   Diaz has been a middleweight figure on the literary scene for 11 years, based almost exclusively on his previous (and only) book Drown a collection of interconnected stories which, like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, chronicled the Dominican immigrant experience with a startling freshness.   If you turn to the back flap of that 1996 book, you'll read an author bio which concludes with "He lives in New York City and is at work on his first novel."  To say that The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was much-anticipated would be an understatement.

Why the long wait?  Tick off the reasons on your fingers: writer's block, the paralysis which comes with sudden fame at a young age (Diaz was in his late 20s when the accolades started flooding in), working for years on an apocalyptic novel about the destruction of New York City which was eventually trumped by the sur-reality of 9/11, you name it.  Little of that matters now, except as a  footnote, because at last we hold in our hands the solid, substantial The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  We can rest assured that Junot Diaz won’t turn out to be this generation’s Harper Lee.

As the novel's title implies, this is the chronicle of Oscar's brief, candle-flame life and charts his quest, but rarely conquest, of girls.  You see, not only is Oscar a Tolkien-loving, Star Trek-quoting, Dungeons & Dragons-playing geek, he's a horny geek whose tongue hangs out and eyes bulge in cartoon cones every time a pretty girl walks by.  The only trouble is, as his friend Yunior points out, "Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber."  Save for one unexpected happy encounter late in his life, Oscar's lust is unrequited, but he takes this as a matter of course because he believes his family is living under the cloud of an Old-World curse called fuku brought to our shores by Columbus.

Despite wearing the family doom like a black, itchy sweater and meeting romantic rejection at every turn, Oscar optimistically journeys through the 1970s, "the dawn of the Nerd Age," Diaz writes.  It's Oscar against the world and he glumly accepts his lot in life.  "Everybody," he says at one point, "misapprehends me."  As he grows older and retreats from his peers into the other-worlds of Lovecraft, Doc Savage, Asimov, Heinlein and Edgar Rice Burroughs, Oscar begins to think his destiny is to be "the Dominican Tolkien."  He spends countless hours holed up in his room writing science-fiction and fantasy sagas.  If Diaz had allowed, Oscar probably would have spent 11 years working on his masterpiece; but, as we're always reminded, this is a brief life.  Oscar tries to make the most of it, even with the fuku hanging over his head.

The novel is more than just a Nerd Epic, however.  Diaz pulls out all the stops in an attempt to tell an all-encompassing story of immigration and assimilation.  Oscar lives with his mother and sister in the ghetto of Paterson, New Jersey, and the novel is as much their story as it is his.  We're just starting to groove with sympathy for fat little Oscar when Diaz suddenly shifts gears and takes us into the world of Lola, Oscar's beautiful, athletic sister who has a stormy relationship with their mother, Belicia, a "hardnosed no-nonsense femme-matador."  Then, before too many more pages have elapsed, we're deep in that woman's story, in an extended flashback called "The Three Heartbreaks of Belicia Cabral," where we learn what happened to her in the Dominican Republic to make her so bitterly protective of her children.  These chapters, along with the rest of the book are truly shaped by heartbreak, a tragedy written by fuku which determines the course of everything to come, from Oscar's obsession with Shazam to Lola's runaway teen saga.  Draped across the entire book is the narration of Yunior, Oscar’s reluctant protector who relates this sad saga in a voice that reverberates with hip-hop slang, tough-guy ghettospeak and, most of all, a slowly-dawning love for his friend the dork.

Diaz proves to be something of a risk-taker.  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao bravely assumes there is an audience of readers who will sit through a long novel in which the English and Spanish languages mingle without the author once stopping to translate the unfamiliar words.  The gist of what the Spanglish phrases mean is pretty easy to pick up, and for those readers who absolutely have to know what guapa or chuleria mean ... well, an English-Spanish dictionary is as close as the Internet.

Diaz also hopes his readers will come to the table with some knowledge of Dominican history, specifically the tyrannical regime of Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961 and who, if Oscar is to be believed, was master of the fuku.  Trujillo who?  You know, the "portly, sadistic, pig-eyed mulato who bleached his skin, wore platform shoes, and had a fondness for Napoleon-era haberdashery."  If your mind is as blank as mine when it comes to the island's past, never fear: Diaz replays the highlights of Santo Domingo History 101 in footnotes which annotate the novel.  Yes, footnotes.  The novel is peppered with them, as any well-respecting Screed of Nerd should be.  Diaz understands most of us don't know squat about Dominicans and, as in Drown, he brings us briskly into the light.  (Pay attention to Trujillo, though, because he plays an important role in Oscar's destiny.)

Diaz never lets the pace lag and his sentences remain fresh and sharp throughout.  One woman is described with "eczema on her hands looking like a messy meal that had set."  Later, Yunior tells us what it's like to be mugged: "my guts feeling like they'd been taken out of me, beaten with mallets, and then reattached with paper clips."  Through his wondrous use of language, Diaz brings the book alive and makes it tremble in our hands.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is an epic in the truest sense and in its fat, endearing hero's chest beats a Homeric heart.  Oscar leads us through his unflagging quest for happiness, while Diaz tumbles us through a century of Dominican history and shows us how the brief life of one lonely boy can epitomize the immigrant experience.  This novel was well worth the decade-long wait.


  1. Thanks for this, David--added to my wish list. Love the idea of fiction in two languages, mingled and without needless explanation. Added Oscar to my wish list.

  2. It's a beautiful, luminous, and often humorous book told in only the way Diaz can--straight up and with no bull. Read it and you will learn something you likely did not know before.

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