I just finished reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. It was recommended to me by a very well read friend of mine who said he was interested in my take on it since I’m Dominican-American. By no means, I am no expert on all Dominicans (I pride myself in knowing a little about a lot so I’m no expert on anything), but having traveled to the country many times and being the second generation daughter of Dominicans does give me some insight. The book reaches far beyond the immigrant experience and touches on universal themes most people can relate to: loneliness, despair, fatalism, and crazy mothers.
Our protagonist is Oscar, an intelligent, obese, awkward, has-no-game-with-the-ladies Dominican-American male. He loves comic books and sci-fi. He aspires to be the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien (ask your average Dominican what a “J.R.R. Tolkien” is for amusing blank stares). Now I know most cultures have little tolerance for the dorkiest and nerdiest among us, but life is especially cruel to a nerd in the ghetto. Having been born here in the states and having a multitude of cultures for comparison, I can tell you that Dominicans have less tolerance than most. Being intelligent and well-read has not been considered a curse, historically speaking, to most white Americans (although lately, it has been called “elitist.” I guess that’s the white people version of when a person of color hears: “Stop trying to be white.” Elitist is white squared?) Poor Oscar can barely converse with his own people—his points of reference make no sense to most of his peers.
Oscar is also the victim of frequent bullying for his super-sized looks. While here in the states, most of the teasing and bullying comes from children, in Dominican culture, it is not considered impolite to be told straight to your face by an adult, “¡Coño, esta gordo!” (Fuck, you are fat!) We think it here in the states, but we’re generally too polite to say it. I don’t know which is worse. Oscar’s worst sin is not his obesity or intelligence. It’s his utter lack of game. A Dominican man without game is the sorriest of the species. It’s endemic to any culture in which machismo is expected—Italians, Puerto Ricans, Cubans and so on. From an early age, men are expected to amass as many conquests as possible. I know men of other cultures are also expected to conquest as many women possible, at least while single, but for Dominican men, it’s taken to a higher level. It’s as if they think they’re all rock stars or professional athletes or something. All of womankind is their groupie. Monogamy within the confines of marriage is not expected of the Dominican male either. He should be as discreet as possible with his paramours, but to stay faithful to one woman? Bah! It’s like they were given a copy of Don Juan at birth and told to memorize it. My dad told me when I was quite young: Stay away from Dominican men; stick to Americans. As I grew up, I witnessed first-hand why he told me that. Fortunately, I wasn’t attracted to most Dominican men—that testosterone on testosterone on steroids is a turn-off—so that made it easy for me. In any event, back to Oscar. Sounds like a fun protagonist, huh? He falls deeply in love with almost every girl who gives him the faintest of attention, so desperate for female affection is he. In summary, he is a complete wuss. I would argue that it wasn’t his looks or weight or love of sci-fi that was a complete turn-off to most women. No, it was his complete and utter wussyism. Much of the book does revolve around the question: Will our charming protagonist ever get himself laid? I won’t give it away. You need to read the book to find out.
His sister is very different. While she is also intelligent, she has looks, personality, and sass. She watches over her pathetic brother but there’s only so much she can do. Her boyfriend, a Dominican-American who can’t keep it in his pants, is also featured prominently in the book. He’s intelligent—they’re classmates at Rutgers—but his fatal flaw is his womanizing to the point of self-destruction.
Oscar’s mother is batshit crazy. The book delves into her early childhood and explains why she is the way she is. While I could never completely empathize with her, after reading her experiences, I could at least understand why she behaved the way she did. Ultimately, every thing she did for her children came from a place of love, even though the way it was expressed was warped. Her story develops in the Dominican Republic with the backdrop of Trujillo. As Junot writes, in case you blinked during the mandatory two minutes of Dominican history during school, Rafael Trujillo was the long-time dictator of the Dominican Republic. For many years, he was backed by the American government until he became a little too big for his britches. American foreign policy can be summed up as: You can be a son of a bitch as long as you’re OUR son of a bitch. Trujillo, like most (all?) dictators, was evil to the core. Racist, raping, torturing, stealing, lying, killing bastard. I think that’s about it. He has one claim to doing something good—allowing Jewish refugees escaping Nazis by ship to settle in the Dominican Republic after they had been rejected by other countries including the United States. Of course, this ultimately had nothing to do with goodness. He accepted the Jews because he was hoping to “lighten up” Dominicans and dilute the effects of the dark-skinned Haitians. Those Jews escaping were not Aryan enough for Germany, but their relative fair skin is what saved them. The book gives you a good dose of Dominican history. It’s actually pretty interesting. (My own family did not escape Trujillo’s wrath. My grandfather, Marcos Perez-Collado, was part of the rebellion against Trujillo’s tyranny and was tortured by his goons. He was lucky to make it out alive—a woman who was well connected saved him. Yes, he was quite the player. You can read about his story here: http://pedro-paradigma.blogspot.com/2011/01/vida-en-la-carcel-durante-el-regimen-de.html. It’s towards the bottom of the page.) Oscar’s fictional mother had the misfortune of crossing paths with Trujillo to tragic results. In fact, the entire family had the misfortune of doing so.
The book has a healthy dose of mysticism while not overdosing on it like Gabriel García Márquez‘s books tend to do. Many Dominicans believe in la brujeria so the mysticism is not out of place or jarring. Almost all believe their family is cursed in some way. I guess it’s easier to believe in curses than it is to believe that life simply sucks for everyone at some point or another.
If you’re still with me, I don’t know if I have done a very good in convincing anyone to read the book. I do highly recommend it. Junot has a way with words and he paints such a vivid picture with his writing. You can see his words. His vocabulary is also expansive, and I found myself looking up quite a few words. To me, that’s a plus. I love learning new words, rolling the new syllables around my tongue and trying them on for size. Although his vocabulary is impressive, he writes in a conversational manner, so it doesn’t feel stuffy probably because our narrator is remarkably obscene. Oh, yeah, and it won some silly little prize, the Pulitzer, I think.