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Arts and Entertainment

Read This Book: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

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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.

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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.

Diaz's authorial voice is warm and colloquial, a true hodge-podge of Dominican and American slang (I had to have a friend translate many of the Spanish phrases for me), and yet his prose is cut through with shards of mystical lyricism that slice open your soul like so much broken glass. A strange golden mongoose appears to each family member at moments of great danger or triumph; Diaz often compares the Caribbean in general and Hispaniola specifically to a fantasy world, haunted with ghosts and visions and terrible evils (Trujillo is often compared to Sauron) and aching beauty.

Despite all this magnificent gloom, Oscar's voice is fast, hilarious, and hyper-real:

What had hurt, however, was when Maritza dumped [Oscar]. Monday after he'd fed Olga to the dogs he arrived at the bus stop with his beloved Planet of the Apes lunch box only to discover beautiful Maritza holding hands with butt-ugly Nelson Pardo. Nelson Pardo who looked like Chaka from Land of the Lost! Nelson Pardo who was so stupid he thought the moon was a stain that God had forgotten to clean. (He'll get to it soon, he assured his whole class.) Nelson Pardo who would become the neighborhood B&E expert before joining the Marines and losing eight toes in the First Gulf War. At first Oscar thought it a mistake; the sun was in his eyes, he'd not slept enough the night before. He stood next to them and admired his lunch box, how realistic and diabolical Dr. Zaius looked. But Maritza wouldn't even smile at him! Pretended he wasn't there. We should get married, she said to Nelson, and Nelson grinned moronically, turning up the street to look for the bus. Oscar had been too hurt to speak; he sat down on the curb and felt something overwhelming surge up from his chest, scared the shit out of him, and before he knew it he was crying; when his sister, Lola, walked over and asked him what was the matter he'd shaken his head. Look at the mariconcito, somebody snickered. Somebody else kicked his beloved lunch box and scratched it right across General Urko's face. When he got on the bus, still crying, the driver, a famously reformed PCP addict, had said, Christ, don't be a fucking baby.

Diaz never reveals the true origin of the curse or "fukú" that dooms poor Oscar and his female relatives: the book hints at a mysterious text written by Beli's father, an intellectual in Trujillo's circle who quietly damns the dictator's cruel regime and hides his daughters away from Trujillo's insatiable lusts. Oscar loves his books as much as he loves his dreams of the women who won't have him, and it's these beautiful dreams that console him when he meets his fate head-on in the Dominican canefields. Oscar's mantra, after all, is "Fear is the mind killer," that classic line from Frank Herbert's Dune, which never sounded more apropos.

I'm certainly not giving anything away (Oscar's life is brief, remember), and I can't urge you enough to pick this book up, even if it will send you on the soppiest and most pathetic of crying jags. The book was eleven years in the making, but let's send a prayer to the Ainur on high that we won't have to wait as long to hear from Junot Diaz's mystically tragic world again.