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February 2, 2009 |

By Dustin Rowles | Books | February 2, 2009 |

I love history, but I hate the subject. I was never much for memorizing dates of battles or significant events. I would never have seen the hot teacher’s boobs in Billy Madison. And yet, I’ve always been drawn to history, because I find it fascinating. It’s why I loved listening to my roommate drunken lecture us on WWII. It’s why I love the books of Erik Larson. I feel like history needs to be told. I feel like it needs to be swaddled in the warm blanket of experience and legend and then told. It’s why I love movies like Slumdog Millionaire and City of God. If you gave me a history book and told me to read the sanitized version of events, I would probably be asleep five pages in, believing that the Pilgrims and Indians were friends. But wrap it in something stylized and slick, with a smartass mouth and unwavering brutality, and I’m in.

Such is the glory of Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel. It’s the story of a fatass ghetto-nerd, Oscar de Leon, who’s family hails from the Dominican Republic. I know nothing of world cultures. I constantly get myself in trouble with the crewmen at work for calling them Mexican, when everyone’s Salvi or Honduran, or some Dominican or Puerto Rican. Where I grew up, there were more colors in a box of Crayolas than there were colors of skin in town. I never knew the different histories and flavors.

Oscar’s story is told almost like a stage play, with different characters taking turns soliloquizing, in their own unique voices. Oscar’s story is the story of his family, and all the travails that they had to endure — each more heartbreaking than the next — and the story of the Dominican Republic and the dictatorship that crushed it during the late part of the 20th century. The story is peppered with Spanish phrasing and tidbits of history, giving it an unbelievable spice and richness. Learning of the atrocities, and how commonplace and they were, tears the heart out of your chest.

But it’s Oscar’s story — and his is the most tragic. Oscar is an overweight nerd — obsessed with Dungeons and Dragons and being the Domi Tolkein. He’s a hopeless romantic, in every sense of the word. He’s obsessed with women, adhering to this code of chivalry like a knight in one of his stories. He fantasizes about rescuing them from toxic outbreak or sci-fi doomsday scenarios, because that’s the only way that someone like him would ever make a girl love him. He’s abused by his friends, by his schoolmates, by his family. They all try to make him lose weight, get some G, live up to his Domi heritage as a playa. But he’s incapable, awkwardly fumbling, unable to get girls to see past his gordo appearance at the enormous heart within.

It isn’t called The Brief Life for any other reason than it’s bound to end tragic. But you pull for Oscar. As you see the other people in his life suffer, try to push him to change his ways, to be a man, you’re crushed by his adventures and the end he’s fated to meet. Oscar’s biggest fear is that he will die a virgin — a lonely bachelor, playing with his d10s.

Diaz’s staccato pacing reminds me of old John Leguizamo stand-up, where he’d play the different characters like the excitable school boy and the hard nose thugs. The narrative is this amazing salsa of spanish slang, nerd references, and straight up history. He’ll be taking about culocracy and putas, and in the next be referencing a beatdown as a 4d10 pummel while riffing on Sauron and The Watchmen.

It’s a fascinating book and a relatively quick read, but it will severely stomp your heart flat like a tortilla. It makes me want to run out and read Diaz’s short story collection, Drown, in the hopes that it’s just as powerful. The worst part is, like City of God, I can’t tell how much of this story is true.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. Details are here and the growing number of participants and their blogs are here.

Cannonball Read / Brian Prisco

Books | February 2, 2009 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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