Life as Latin pyrotechnics
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.