Book Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz

Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao“I did all I could and it still wasn’t enough.”

“You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like? Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto. Mamma mia! Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.”

Meet Oscar de León. Once upon a time, in elementary school, Oscar was a slick Dominican kid who seemed to have a typical life ahead of him. Then, around the time he hit puberty, Oscar gained a whole lot of weight, became awkward both physically and socially, and got deeply interested in things that made him an outcast among his peers (sci-fi novels, comics, Dungeons & Dragons, writing novels, etc.). A particularly unfortunate Dr. Who Halloween costume earns him the nickname Oscar Wao for the costume’s resemblance to another Oscar: playwright Oscar Wilde (Wao being a Dominican spin on the surname). His few friends are embarrassed by him, girls want nothing to do with him, and everywhere he goes Oscar finds nothing but derision and hostility. And he’s not the only person in his family suffering through life: his mother, a former beauty, has been ravaged by illness, bad love affairs, and worry regarding her two children; and his sister Lola, another intense beauty, has been cursed with a nomadic soul and her mother’s poor taste in men.

The kicker about the de León family? They just may be the victims of a bona fide curse (a particularly nasty one at that, called a fukú) as a result of their history with Rafael Trujillo, a former dictator of the Dominican Republic renowned for his brutality, and whose enemies uniformly met with disastrous ends one way or another (historical details about Trujillo and the history of his reign are scattered throughout the novel, a tidbit that may turn some off of the book, but rest assured that Díaz is so utterly entertaining a writer that they are a joy to read). The de Leóns are on a collision course with disaster, but can they break the curse before it’s too late?

“you can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in.”

Embroiled in all this mess is Yunior, our primary narrator and Oscar’s former college roommate (not to mention the philandering ex-boyfriend of Lola, the novel’s other narrator), whose experiences with the de León clan will haunt him for the rest of his life. His attempts to help Oscar become more popular fail, as do his tries to escape Oscar’s grasp. “These days,” he remarks at one point, “I have to ask myself: What made me angrier? That Oscar, the fat loser, quit, or that Oscar, the fat loser, defied me? And I wonder: What hurt him more? That I was never really his friend, or that I pretended to be?”

Oscar is far and away the most poignant character to come along in a great long while; in my book he’s every bit as memorable as Ignatius J. Reilly, Holden Caulfield, Randall Patrick McMurphy, and other literary giants. Furthermore, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is a phenomenal novel that is hysterical, hypnotic, heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal parts (and quite often at the same time). The plot is a madcap high-wire act balanced with astonishing dexterity by Junot Díaz. If he has a misstep it is in the denouement, which is rather sudden and slightly lacking in clarity for an otherwise thorough novel. Nonetheless, I loved, loved, loved this book. And, naturally, I highly recommend it.

Grade: A


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