The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Diaz

by Junot Diaz

These stories,
published in the
mid-1990s, boosted
Diaz to literary fame
as the great young
Latino writer.  The ten
tales that comprise
Drown are interlocking
accounts of family and
cultural strife, a sort of
version of Dubliners.  
Diaz does not pull his
punches, and adeptly
deals with disturbing
topics -- such as the
taunting of a
disfigured youth, or
the lies and deceptions
that destroy families.   
The characters and
themes of these
stories reappear in
Diaz's recent novel
Brief Wondrous Life of
Oscar Wao
.  But,
strangely, these early
short stories come
across as more mature
and controlled, while
the novel has the
unbridled energy one
would associate with a
younger author.   Both
books are essential
works of Latino fiction.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Readers almost forgot about Junot Diaz. His 1996 short story collection,
Drown, earned praise for its spicy prose — a mixture of English, Spanish,
slang, and street talk — and its harsh tales of life among Dominican-
American immigrants. Even back in 1996, this slim book of stories was seen
as a prelude to the great novel the twenty-seven-year-old was already in
the midst of writing.

More than a decade passed and no novel was published. Diaz continued to
reap the benefits of his early success. He received a
Guggenheim fellowship, a professorship at MIT, and
other honors, but as Diaz got closer and closer to his
fortieth birthday, the absence of the long-awaited
novel started to tarnish his once glittering reputation.

How fitting that when the novel finally appeared earlier
this month, the plot revolved around a Dominican-
American author who struggles for years with his
writing without ever publishing a page — all because
of a supposed family curse.  But
The Brief Wondrous Life
of Oscar Wao
is anything but a cursed book.

The novel starts out
muy caliente, right where Drown ended. We are again
led by narrator Yunior, another struggling writer (a recurring theme here)
who relates the story of his friend Oscar, a nerdy Latino with a disastrous
love life and a much-ridiculed attachment to science fiction.

Diaz crafts a complex narrative, full of flashbacks, side stories, and even
footnotes that eventually encompass a partisan history of the Dominican
Republic and complete accounts of the tribulations of Oscar's forebears.
Much like Philip Roth in
American Pastoral and Thomas Mann in Buddenbrooks,
Diaz aims to present the full panorama of the rise and fall of a single family
over the course of three generations.

If the plot structure is arcane, the language is punchy and direct — and
here, all comparisons with Thomas Mann are out of place. Almost every
paragraph mixes in a dose of Spanish or Spanglish. The macho bravado of
the street corner permeates every page. Diaz tosses out the F-word and
the N-word and a lot of other raw talk with disturbing frequency.

I am more impressed by Diaz's daring mixture of elements outside the
typical purview of the Third World immigrant novel. He pays tribute to his
protagonist's love of science fiction by sprinkling in crazy and unpredictable
references to
Dune, Tolkien, Dejah Thoris, Planet of the Apes, Dr. Who, and a
host of other genre topics.  At other times he throws his readers a
surprising high-culture curveball, as in the name of his hero, which comes
from a Latino's mis-pronunciation of Oscar Wilde. The clash and interplay
between these different elements in Diaz's writing impart a quirky and
enjoyable syncopation to the flow of the book.

Diaz succeeds on several levels. He has done much more than tell the story
of Oscar Wao. He has artfully captured the history of a country, a family,
and the immigrant experience of Dominican-Americans. Unlike the history
lessons in school, this one never gets boring. Let's hope we don't need to
wait another decade before we get a sequel.
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