Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews



The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz








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Junot Diaz’ debut novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, may make you laugh at times, or cry at times, and often reread a sentence or two and say, “Wow!.” The protagonist Oscar de Leon lives, as do we all, in relationship: as a son, a brother, a friend. Identity is also nationality, in Oscar’s case, from the Dominican Republic, a place where family, especially during the dictatorship of President Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, meant living or dying. Oscar is an overweight, science-fiction loving, awkward nerd.  He gives Diaz all the opportunity to barrage readers with great words. Here’s an excerpt, from the end of Chapter 2, pp. 70-75:


And that is how I ended up in Santo Domingo. I guess my mother thought it would be harder for me to run away from an island where I knew no one, and in a way she was right. I'm into my sixth month here and these days I'm just trying to be philo­sophical about the whole thing. I wasn't like that at first, but in the end I had to let it go. It was like the fight between the egg and the rock, my abuela said. No winning. I'm actually going to school, not that it's going to count when I return to Paterson, but it keeps me busy and out of mischief and around people my own age. You don't need to be around us viejos all day, Abuela says. I have mixed feelings about the school. For one thing, it's improved my Spanish a lot. The          Academy is a private school, a Carol Morgan wannabe filled with people my do Carlos Moya calls los hijos de mami y papi. And then there's me. If you think it was tough being a goth in Paterson, try be­ing a Dominican York in one of those private schools back in DR. You will never meet bitchier girls in your whole life. They whisper about me to death. Someone else would have a nervous breakdown, but after Wildwood I'm not so brittle. I don't let it get to me. And the irony of all ironies? I'm on our school's track team. I joined because my friend Rosio, the scholarship girl from Los Mina, told me I could win a spot on the team on the length of my legs alone. Those are the pins of a winner, she prophesied. Well, she must have known something I didn't be­cause I'm now our school's top runner in the 400 meters and un­der. That I have talent at this simple thing never ceases to amaze me. Karen would pass out if she could see me running sprints out behind my school while Coach Cortes screams at us, first in Spanish and then in Catalan. Breathe, breathe, breathe! I've got like no fat left on me, and the musculature of my legs impresses everyone, even me. I can't wear shorts anymore without causing traffic jams and the other day when my abuela locked us out of the house she turned to me in frustration and said, Hija, just kick the door open. That pushed a laugh out of both of us.

So much has changed these last months, in my head, my heart. Rosio has me dressing up like a "real Dominican girl." She's the one who fixed my hair and who helps me with my makeup, and sometimes when I see myself in mirrors I don't even know who I am anymore. Not that I'm unhappy or any­thing. Even if I found a hot-air balloon that would whisk me straight to U2's house, I'm not sure I would take it. (I'm still not talking to my traitor brother, though.) The truth is I'm even thinking of staying one more year. Abuela doesn't want me to ever leave--I'll miss you, she says so simply it can't be anything but true, and my mom has told me I can stay if I want to but that I would be welcome at home too. Tia Rubelka tells me she's hanging tough, my mother, that she's back to two jobs. They send me a picture of the whole family and Abuela frames it and I can't look at them without misting up. My mother's not wear­ing her fakies in it; she looks so thin I don't even recognize her.

Just know that I would die for you, she told me the last time we talked. And before I could say anything she hung up.

But that's not what I wanted to tell you. It's about that crazy feeling that started this whole mess, the bruja feeling that comes singing out of my bones, that takes hold of me the way blood seizes cotton. The feeling that tells me that everything in my life is about to change. It's come back. Just the other day I woke up from all these dreams and it was there, pulsing inside of me. I imagine this is what it feels like to have a child in you. At first I was scared because I thought it was telling me to run away again, but every time I looked around our house, every time I saw my abuela, the feeling got stronger so I knew this was something different. I was dating a boy by then, a sweet moren­ito by the name of Max Sanchez, whom I had met in Los Mina while visiting Rosio. He's short but his smile and his snappy dressing make up for a lot. Because I'm from Nueba Yol he talks about how rich he's going to become and I try to explain to him that I don't care about that but he looks at me like I'm crazy. I'm going to get a white Mercedes-Benz, he says. Tu veras. But it's the job he has that I love best, that got me and him started. In Santo Domingo two or three theaters often share the same set of reels for a movie, so when the first theater finishes with the first reel they put it in Max's hands and he rides his motorcycle like crazy to make it to the second theater and then he drives back, waits, picks up the second reel, and so on. If he's held up or gets into an accident the first reel will end and there will be no second reel and the people in the audience will throw bottles. So far he's been blessed, he tells me and kisses his San Miguel medal. Because of me, he brags, one movie becomes three. I'm the man who puts together the pictures. Max's not from "la clase alts," as my abuela would describe it, and if any of the stuck-up bitches in school saw us they would just about die, but I'm fond of him. He holds open doors, he calls me his morena; when he's feeling brave he touches my arm gently and then pulls back.

Anyway, I thought maybe the feeling was about Max and so one day I let him take us to one of the love motels. He was so excited he almost fell off the bed and the first thing he wanted was to look at my ass. I never knew my big ass could be such a star attraction but he kissed it, four, five times, gave me goose bumps with his breath and pronounced it a tesoro. When we were done and he was in the bathroom washing himself I stood in front of the mirror naked and looked at my culo for the first time. A tesoro, I repeated. A treasure.

Well? Rosio asked at school. And I nodded once, quickly, and she grabbed me and laughed and all the girls I hated turned to look but what could they do? Happiness, when it comes, is stronger than all the jerk girls in Santo Domingo combined.

But I was still confused. Because the feeling, it just kept getting stronger and stronger, wouldn't let me sleep, wouldn't give me any peace. I started losing races, which was something I never did.

You ain't so great, are you, gringa, the girls on the other teams hissed at me and I could only hang my head. Coach Cortes was so unhappy he just locked himself in his car and wouldn't say anything to any of us.

The whole thing was driving me crazy, and then one night I came home from being out with Max. He had taken me for a walk along the Malecon he never had money for anything else—and we had watched the bats zigzagging over the palms and an old ship head into the distance. He talked quietly about moving to the U.S. while I stretched my hamstrings. My abuela was waiting for me at the living room table. Even though she still wears black to mourn the husband she lost when she was young she's one of the most handsome women I've ever known. We have the same jagged lightning-bolt part and the first time I saw her at the airport I didn't want to admit it but I knew that things were going to be OK between us. She stood like she was her own best thing and when she saw me she said, Hija, I have waited for you since the day you left. And then she hugged me and kissed me and said, I'm your abuela, but you can call me La Inca.

Standing over her that night, her part like a crack in her hair, I felt a surge of tenderness. I put my arms around her and that was when I noticed that she was looking at photos. Old photos, the kind I'd never seen in my house. Photos of my mother when she was young and of other people. I picked one up. Mami was standing in front of a Chinese restaurant. Even with the apron on she looked potent, like someone who was going to be someone.

She was very guapa, I said casually.

Abuela snorted. Guapa soy yo. Your mother was a diosa. But so cabeza dura. When she was your age we never got along. I didn't know that, I said.

She was cabeza dura and I was ... exigente. But it all turned out for the best, she sighed. We have you and your brother and that's more than anyone could have hoped for, given what came before. She plucked out one photo. This is your mother's father, she offered me the photo. He was my cousin, and -

She was about to say something else and then she stopped.

And that's when it hit with the force of a hurricane. The feeling. I stood straight up, the way my mother always wanted me to stand up. My abuela was sitting there, forlorn, trying to cobble together the right words and I could not move or breathe. I felt like I always did at the last seconds of a race, when I was sure that I was going to explode. She was about to say something and I was waiting for whatever she was going to tell me. I was waiting to begin.


As you can see in the excerpt, Diaz shows no mercy to readers who might not be fluent in more than one language. Much of Oscar Wao involves the breaking down of barriers, so join the family of earth-dwellers and go with this flow of this finely written novel.


Steve Hopkins, April 21, 2008



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