Life as Latin py­rotech­nics

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Nigel Krauth

The Brief Won­drous Life of Os­car Wao By Junot Diaz Faber & Faber, 340pp, $ 32.95

IN the Do­mini­can Repub­lic there ’ s a dish called san­co­cho, or seven- meat stew. It ’ s the coun­try’ s culi­nary mas­ter­piece. Beef, goat, pork, ham, chicken, pota­toes, ba­nanas, yams, cobs of corn go in, and much more, with lash­ings of vine­gar and hot chilli sauce. It ’ s for cel­e­brat­ing great fam­ily oc­ca­sions; it takes ages to pre­pare. Tuck in, you can ’ t stop.

I ’ m talk­ing about a Caribbean feast in a sin­gle pot, but I might as well be talk­ing about Junot

The Brief Won­drous Life of Os­car Diaz ’ s novel Wao. How de­light­ful to read and in­wardly digest a book that’ s rich and fiery, sweet and sour, all the way through to the fi­nal mop- up. This book is es­plen­dido .

Three gen­er­a­tions of the ill- fated de Leon fam­ily are un­cov­ered here. Grand­fa­ther Abe­lard ’ s ap­palling tor­ture un­der the Tru­jillo dic­ta­tor­ship in the Do­mini­can Repub­lic in the 1940s, the con­fis­ca­tion of the fam­ily for­tune and the deaths that fol­low lead to his one sur­viv­ing daugh­ter, Beli, re­mak­ing her­self as the queen of di­as­pora in the Do­mini­can ghet­toes of Pater­son, New Jer­sey. Th­ese events lead in turn to the birth of the strug­gling star of the piece: our big­gest loser, home­boy hero Os­car.

Os­car’ s main tra­jec­tory in the novel is to avoid be­com­ing the first DR male in his­tory to die a vir­gin. While his con­fr­eres are scoop­ing hot ass by the hand­ful all around him, Os­car is in univer­sity eat­ing his way to 140kg mon­s­ter­dom, in­creas­ing his nerdism to epic pro­por­tions through vo­ra­cious genre read­ing and game­play, and try­ing to write sci- fi nov­els in bulk se­ries and mas­sive quar­tets.

He wants to be Stephen King and J. R. R. Tolkien and James Joyce and Alan Moore and Stan Lee rolled into one. And it ’ s not work­ing.

But Os­car has an­other prob­lem: the fuku, a voodoo- type curse that has kept the de Leons down ever since Grand­fa­ther Abe­lard re­fused the sac­ri­fice of his two beau­ti­ful teenage daugh­ters to the lust of the dic­ta­tor Tru­jillo.

The fuku, it seems, is re­spon­si­ble for all Os­car ’ s fail­ings. Or is it? At times Os­car can ’ t de­cide: is it the fuku, or sim­ply life it­self? Even when he tries to com­mit sui­cide by jump­ing off the New Brunswick train bridge on to Route 18, the fuku in­ter­venes and he lands on the na­ture strip.

In­stead of find­ing him­self in nerd heaven — ‘‘ where ev­ery nerd gets 58 vir­gins to role- play with — he woke up in Robert Wood John­son with two bro­ken legs and a sep­a­rated shoul­der. ’’

There are plenty who want to help Os­car in his er­ratic, sor­row­ful life. His fiery mother Beli, his re­bel­lious sis­ter Lola, his serene great- aunt La Inca, even his phi­lan­der­ing buddy Yu­nior, who has the op­po­site prob­lem to Os­car ’ s: his pe­nis won ’ t stay in his pants, the chi­cas keep invit­ing it out to party.

But those who re­ally count for Os­car, the scores of women he falls for and fan­ta­sises over daily, are scared off by him, or self- cat­e­gorised as friends only. Beaten up re­peat­edly by his fool­ish crushes, his con­sis­tent knock­backs, and fi­nally by the po­lice cap­tain whose squeeze he un­wisely warms to, Os­car re­mains painfully op­ti­mistic. Down and al­most out, he can some­how bravely say: I still have a few hit points left. ’’

‘‘ Does Os­car die a vir­gin? Play­fully, trag­i­cally, enig­mat­i­cally, the end­ing of the novel has more

Doc­tor Who. You ’ ll be root­ing for en­cores than Os­car: you may or may not be dis­ap­pointed.

Junot Diaz, 38, teaches writ­ing at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy; he mi­grated to the US from the DR at age six, grew up in the New Jer­sey Do­mini­can bar­rio, has pub­lished just two books ( his first was the story col­lec­tion Drown in 1996), and was named as one of The New Yorker s top 20 writ­ers for the 21st cen­tury.

’ The qual­i­ties of Diaz ’ s writ­ing are in­deed as­tound­ing. The lan­guage goes off like a bomb in a fire­works fac­tory. It ’ s a rich dis­play of lit­er­ary al­lu­sions, pop­u­lar cul­ture ref­er­ences, au­thor­i­ta­tive ac­counts of his­tory and pol­i­tics, and — per­haps best of all — mar­vel­lous in­sight into how hu­mans think and act in joy and in des­per­a­tion.

As sen­si­tive as it is saucy, as in- your- face as it is in­ven­tive, as gritty as it is grand, as hi­lar­i­ous as it is hor­ri­fy­ing, The Brief Won­drous Life of Os­car Wao never lets up. Diaz ’ s en­ergy is end­less. He can pound the bass on your head­board all night and all day. It ’ s the best damned read I ’ ve had in a long time.

Nigel Krauth is a writer who lives in Queens­land.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Igor Sak­tor

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.