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February 6, 2008 | Comments ()

Goodbye, Columbus

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz / Phillip Stephens

Book Reviews | February 6, 2008 | Comments ()

The titular hero of Junot Diaz’s novel is a nerd — a chronically obese, socially malformed virgin with an encyclopedic knowledge of comic books, dime store sci-fi, fantasy epics, anime, and post-apocalyptic thrillers. Oscar sounds in every way like the stereotype of the American pop-landscape, save for one thing — he’s Dominican, a first-generation kid from Paterson, NJ. Oscar’s heritage has its own stereotype — the saucy, macho lothario — in every way Oscar’s opposite. Most people don’t even believe Oscar is Dominican when certainly his interests and utter romantic failure(s) seem to belie the fact. This poor kid could not be more screwed.

Diaz is doing something very interesting with this. By pitting one stereotype against another, he’s found not only a way to further isolate his character, but to offer a commentary on the immigrant experience, the collision of Old World and New, which itself assumes the trappings of a mystical fantasy; “What more sci-fi than Santo Domingo? What more fantasy than the Antilles?” he wonders. The nerdy frills Oscar surrounds himself with, the constant allusions to Tolkien and tabletop gaming, are something most Americans will have familiarity with when (in deference to a very American stereotype) we know very little about the history, past and present, of the myriad of islands directly south of us, even with our constant military dalliances there.

Diaz suffuses Oscar’s coming-of-age tragedies with Dominican history, personal and political. As the main character’s tale unfolds, Diaz moves backwards, looking at the lives of his mother, Beli, and grandfather, both of whom lived in the shadow of the D.R.’s monstrous dictator, Rafael Trujillo (“He was our Sauron, our Arawn.”). The narrator gradually reveals himself to be Yunior, Oscar’s college roomie and his sister Lola’s would-be beau; Yunior is the stereotype Oscar yearns to be, the smooth-talking hip-hop Dominican who can’t keep from leaping into bed with every beauty who crosses his path, even when he doesn’t intend to. Yunior’s narration melds ghetto patois with smart cultural dissembling and Oscar’s constant references to geek lore; the book reads hyper-fast, but in a way that’s evocative and entertaining.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao may channel Lethem and Chabon’s use of geek-pop to explore an outsider’s mindset, but it’s really the Caribbean diaspora of Derek Walcott that Diaz wants to drive home. The heart of Oscar’s darkness is combining the magic of the Old World with the excitement of the New, an assimilation which will have tragic consequences, no matter which you end up with. But there’s also beauty to be found, a tropical enchantment which makes the suffering worthwhile.

And really, I can’t recommend this book enough. There just aren’t many authors out there who can do what Diaz did here — to combine past with present, high-brow with low-brow, sad with hilarious, while making both so damn compelling.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic and book editor for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.

DVD Releases 02/06/08 | Interstate Anthems

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