Read This Book: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
When's the last time a book made you cry? And I don't mean a slight welling in the tear ducts, I don't mean a sniffle here or there, I mean a REAL god damn cry, the leaky, sobbing, snotty kind of cry, the likes of which you haven't experienced since your fourth grade teacher read Where the Red Fern Grows aloud to the class and even the boys were sniveling into their t-shirts when that nasty mountain lion tore apart those beautiful hounds?
Yeah. THAT kind of cry. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the stunning, heart-breaking, and transporting debut novel from Dominican-American author Junot Diaz (he of 1996's short story collection Drown), will get down in that place inside of you that recognizes all the terrible beauty in life, the place you can't go to anymore because it just hurts too damn much -- Junot Diaz wrote a book in that place, a place shot through with both terrible visions of modern despotism and escapist fantasies of Tolkien-like folklore. Oscar Wao is born from that place, and his curse is the reader's release.
The title character is the ostensible hero of our story: Oscar is fat, nerdy, uses too many big words, and cannot get a girl for the life of him -- he's a disgrace to the overweening machismo of his Dominican friends, a hard-core sci-fi loser who quotes incessantly from The Silmarillion and The Watchmen. When one his friends tells him "No Dominican man ever dies a virgin," he hangs every last shred of hope he has on this slippery prophecy, which eventually causes both his doom and his redemption.
The novel sweeps back and forth across the generations, from Santo Domingo to Paterson, New Jersey and back again, from the terrors of the Trujillo era to the everyday absurdities of modern suburban life. Diaz litters the page with footnotes in true David Foster Wallace style -- although these footnotes go a long way towards filling in the gaps of the reader's knowledge of Dominican culture, and even serve as sort of a revisionary history of the Trujillo era (and the United States's involvement in the region). Although Oscar's voice begins and ends the book, Diaz reserves most of his narrative for the female characters of the novel, including Oscar's sister, Lola, a hard-headed and rebellious beauty who can only run so far from her family's terrible legacy, and their domineering, tragic mother, Beli, whose family's refusal to bow to the perverted desires of Trujillo and co. brings down a terrible curse, or fukú, that haunts them after they escape to America.