Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Life and Times of a Dominican Uber-Geek

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Since the book's publication a few months ago, no one has had a bad word to say about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao because there isn't one. It's actually perfect.

At first, Diaz's story of an orc and elf-obsessed ghetto nerd, obsessed with becoming the Dominican Tolkien seems fun, if light. However, it's about something much bigger than a sexually frustrated kid who never leaves his room.

Enter Trujillo, aka El Jefe, the Failed Cattle Thief, Fuckface, and the Dominican Republic's own personal Sauron.

If your knowledge of Dominican history only extends to that Salma Hayek and Edward James Olmos movie, if that far, it's okay. Diaz includes a number of provocative and irreverent footnotes designed to get you in the loop as the story leaps from 1980s New Jersey to the Dominican Republic under Trujillo's bloody dictatorship.

The book starts with Oscar's formative years, as he morphs into an obese, spotty troglodyte prone to walking up to attractive women and saying, "If you were in my game I would give you an eighteen Charisma!"*

From there, we learn about the teenage rebellion of Oscar's tough, endearing sister, Lola, and the harrowing adolescence of his mother, Beli, who takes up with a Trujillo thug, and has to flee the country. The narration switches between characters, but most of the story is told by Yunior, a brainy Dominican playa who rooms with Oscar in college, and becomes deeply invested in, and in a way, bound to Oscar's fate.

Because as you might have gathered from the book's title, Oscar doesn't make it. There's some bad juju hovering around the de Leon family (or fuku, as it's called), possibly laid on them by Trujillo himself (who was said to harness the curse and unleash it against those who crossed him). And our hero is somehow bound to make horribly self-destructive choices in life and love, playing into the curse even as he grows closer to understanding it.

Diaz flawlessly blends historical events and figures with his fictional world, and the book's narration is original and infectious (not since Trainspotting have I caught myself thinking in a character's voice after reading a book).

You owe it to yourself to check this one out.
* It's a role-playing game thing.


AK said...

I've been wanting to read this book - until I read a pretty negative review of it on PopMatters. Well, even that review came out positive in the end, but it managed to convince me to move the book down on my list of stuff to read. Now it's back up again!

mary_m said...

I just read the PopMatters review - geez, it's cranky. Don't believe a word.