Junot Díaz is a Dominican-American writer, creative writing professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and fiction editor at Boston Review. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, in 2008.
“Funny, street-smart and keenly observed . . . An extraordinarily vibrant book that’s fueled by adrenaline-powered prose...”
“It is a joy to read, and every bit as exhilarating to reread.”
“Astoundingly great . . . It’s an immigrant-family saga for people who don’t read immigrant-family sagas.”
Equal parts history lesson and modern American comic-book epic, infused with the tragic voodoo magic of the Dominican Republic, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is, simply, sprawling. Junot Díaz presents his sophomore effort, a literary whirlwind (and this 11 years in the making following 1996’s much-heralded story collection, Drown), with grace and aplomb. The novel follows ghetto nerd Oscar, fat and girl-desperate in Northern New Jersey, the only Dominican in the New World with no game besides Dungeons & Dragons:
“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.”
The novel follows Oscar’s headstrong sister, Lola, a runaway and independent. The reader is whisked away from 1990s New Jersey to the Dominican Republic of generations past, exploring the narrative of Oscar and Lola’s mother, the narratives of their grandparents, of those who lived through the era known as the Plátano Curtain, a time when Rafael Trujillo ruled the country mercilessly. For 30 bloody years Trujillo controlled the Dominican Republic as one of history’s most ruthless dictators. And it seems his hold has lingered long after his 1961 assassination: this is the fukú, the curse that has preyed on the family.
“That’s our parents’ shit,” reasons Yunior, the novel’s (main) narrator and tour guide, Oscar’s one-time roommate, Lola’s one-time boyfriend. It is Yunior — who first appeared way back when in Drown — who makes this book what it is: Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. It is his voice that carries the narrative, all the narratives, and it’s a near-shame to have to unmask Yunior this way, as if robbing the reader of the surprise artistry that is inherent in this voice.
But it must be said: Díaz is nothing short of masterful in his treatment of the womanizing Yunior, Oscar’s foil by most accounts. This only becomes clearer as the novel rockets on, becomes clearer still on second and third reads, how Díaz adroitly layers this characterization into the story, as this voice moves from omniscient narrator to flesh-and-bone character. Such care the author has taken with this voice, and an easy voice it would be to overkill at that, charged as it is with comic books and street Spanish. But this is why The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a modern American masterpiece, because therein lies the real story.
This is a novel as far-reaching as it is intimate, from the Dominican to New Jersey, from generation to generation, an immigrant epic. There is a strange magic at work here, as the reader discovers soon enough that Oscar is not long for this world — but that is nearly beside the point.